The opponents to building the new school point to declining school population and the amount of debt the town already is dealing with. There is nothing unique about Westport’s predicament. It is a phenomenon in Massachusetts and a direct outcome of Proposition 2 ½.
Prop 2 ½ has been in place since 1980. The genius of the act was that it would rein in what was perceived as out-of-control rising property taxes in communities that could not afford it. It was understood that a 2 ½ percent increase annually would not keep up with inflation and the cost of doing business, but in their infinite wisdom, the framers provided a relief valve. It is called the general override. What they didn’t consider was that general overrides would almost never pass in the less affluent communities like Westport. Turns out that only the towns with deep pockets have passed general overrides to address the deficits created by Prop 2 ½.
In communities like Westport, the result has been a progressive decline in basic services. Town departments have had to grapple with increasing workloads and diminishing resources. Westport’s Fire Department, as one example, has been staffed at levels we were at 20 years ago, and their workload has more than doubled.
Westport Community Schools have taken a huge hit. When our kids went through the system in the 1990s, Westport had robust sports programs and one of the best music programs in the state. Today those programs have been gutted and the high school is an aging artifact from the 50's with undersized classrooms, leaking roof and lumbering outdated environmental control systems. It makes no sense to throw good money after bad to try to keep that building afloat as our high school.
Under the shadow of Prop 2 ½, the only way towns like Westport get anything done is to borrow money to pay for things. We have had some relief from the Community Preservation Act, which has paid millions for the upkeep of our historic buildings, dredging the river, saving open space, developing affordable housing, developing recreational opportunities and preserving some of the town’s historic resources. But CPA funding cannot fend off the continual depletion of resources to run the town’s basic functions. Borrowing is the only way we get to buy new highway equipment, new police cruisers and build new buildings. It is the nature of the beast created by Proposition 2 ½.
One of the most depressing results of this decline is the continual degradation of our schools, resulting in students leaving for other schools. This is not a natural progression. The fact that the median age of our population is increasing is not healthy. Healthy communities have a broad range, including a lot of school-age kids who WANT to attend their local school. That isn’t what we have in Westport, but it is what we want if we want to regain some of our spirit.
I will admit that I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to this issue until recently. My initial thought was that it was ridiculous to spend so much money and abandon our present high school. So, after a brief conversation with Dianne Baron, the chair of the school building committee, I went online and found the PowerPoint slide show they presented to the Board of Selectmen (westportsbc.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Road-Show-10-BOS_FINAL-Final.pdf).
This committee did their homework. After going through the presentation I was sold on the importance of taking advantage of this opportunity to build a new state-of-the-art school for our high school and middle school, and have half the cost paid for by Massachusetts School Building Authority funding. They’re also going to pay half the cost of demolishing the old middle school. Seems like kind of a no-brainer to me, but I encourage anyone on the fence about this to take the time to check out the link to their thoughtfully crafted and comprehensive presentation to the Board of Selectmen. And while you’re at it, check out a nice presentation by the architect where he takes you on a virtual tour of the new building. It’s really cool, and also available at westportsbc.com.
Please vote yes on the new school. It’s a real investment in the future of our town.
— Tim Gillespie is a Westport resident.