Wellesley Special Town Meeting’s over: All articles easily approved over 3 nights

All 8 articles voted on during Wellesley’s Special Town Meeting easily passed, not to say there weren’t lots of questions and some opposition along the way.

The most prominent articles, #2 for Hunnewell Elementary School construction and swing space funding and #3 for Hardy Elementary School construction funding, involved the most elaborate presentations. A cast of thousands, or actually about a dozen, gave background on the articles before Town Meeting members had their say on nights 1 and 2 (we didn’t see night #2 of the meeting).

With both school articles passing (along with Article 4, which transferred Rte. 9 property near Hardy to the School Committee), that pave dthe way for a pair of town-wide debt exclusion votes on Dec. 7. We’ve embedded the warrant for that Special Election below.

While Moderator Mark Kaplan attempted to keep discussion on the Article 2 and 3 topics separate, they were naturally intertwined in many a Town Meeting members’ minds and thus discussed as such.

Some of those in favor cited not wanting to waste 10 years of work that have gone into these projects, while some of those opposed urged fellow Town Meeting members not to get caught up in the past and take a closer look at how the projects would fit in today’s world, with significant enrollment declines ongoing. One Town Meeting member described the condition of the current older Wellesley schools as “a disgrace,” and another said new schools with new designs are needed to support today’s styles of teaching, and to show support for teachers themselves. Others pushed for building smaller schools.

Hardy abutter Dan Backer supported Articles 2 and 3, referencing “desperately needed infrastructure repairs” at the schools. “This is not a time to revisit the decisions and the options or the plans and the risk and try to set the project back…we as taxpayers need to take advantage of the $13.5M in matching funds from the state and try to move these projects forward,” he said.

Town Meeting member Gwendolyn Magnan said on the first night that she no longer has kids in the school system but encouraged Town Meeting to join her in voting for Articles 2 and 3. “These projects are expensive, but this is an investment that we must make.”

Ethan Davis said he was originally supportive of keeping all 7 elementary schools, but shifted his thinking that 6 would be fine given shrinking enrollment. Now he wonders whether there will even be enough student capacity to fill 6 schools without significant redistricting. He was voting in favor of the articles, but expressed reservations considering the planned new buildings’ “unprecedented price per square foot” and equity issues surrounding the resources put into these new schools vs. those in the Fiske and Schofield precincts.

Calculations that the projects could lead to a $750 median annual tax increase at its peak in 2024 (the tax increase would shrink over time) didn’t sit well with others.

Leanne Liebman said the town needs to pause on these projects in light of Wellesley’s needs changing dramatically in recent years, and pondered whether all students could fit into 5 schools, perhaps with just 1 new school in that mix. “Why would we spend $125M-plus of taxpayers’ money on plan that’s out of date?” she asked.

Town Meeting member Richard Howes, citing the loss of 300-plus elementary school students in recent years,  questioned the wisdom of having separate items for both proposed new schools on the same ballot. This, he said, could lead some to vote both down to avoid a big tax increase. “We underestimate the numbers of split voters at our peril,” he said, advocating for a focus on a new Hardy school initially and noting his opposition to Article 2.

In the end, Article 2 passed by a vote of 202/20/2 and Article 3 passed by a vote of 210/9/1.

The other drama leading up to Special Town Meeting revolved around Article 6 in which the Department of Public Works sought approval to borrow $1.5 million for an interim solution to address PFAS chemicals in town drinking water and $5.3 million for a permanent solution at the Morses Pond water treatment facility. Much discussion involved the possibility of using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to cover costs.

Familiar environmental voices started questioning the proposed filtration systems in advance of Special Town Meeting at both Select Board and Board of Public Works meetings, asking if the town might be better off just getting all its water from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority in light of so many unknowns about PFAS infiltration in town. DPW officials said they welcomed further public discussion on the topic, though explained that taking in more MWRA water than Wellesley is already doing during the start of this situation would involve many challenges. This would include significant upgrades to the intake and distribution system, and addressing assumptions about the MWRA’s willingness to play along and the price of its already expensive water going forward.

Expect to hear about public input opportunities on this topic from the DPW.

Special Town Meeting approved a scaled back article for just the interim solution by a vote of 208/1/2.

Wellesley Media’s Special Town Meeting recordings:

Oct. 25

Oct. 26

Oct. 27

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