Published in the April 22, 2016 edition.


This is part of a series leading up to the town election Tuesday, April 26. 

WAKEFIELD — Wakefield recently submitted a “Statement of Interest” to the Massachusetts School Building authority seeking state financial assistance to correct deficiencies at Wakefield Memorial High School. The debt exclusion for new Galvin Middle School has already added about $200 a year to the average single-family home’s tax bill. Given that a new high school would be significantly more expensive to build than the Galvin was, we asked the School Committee candidates if they would favor a Proposition 2½ override or debt exclusion to build a new high school.

Incumbents Gregory Liakos and Thomas Markham responded as did challengers Ronald Masse and Gregory Powers. Powers is mounting a write-in campaign for School Committee. Three will be elected in the Tuesday, April 26 Town Election.

Liakos said that he was confident that the same public process that brought the Galvin Middle School to fruition will again serve the community well on the question of a new high school.

“As a homeowner,” Liakos said, “the first question I ask when I get my property tax bill is the same one I pose with all expenses: What am I getting for my money? In the case of our taxes, what we get is a healthy, vibrant community in which to live, work and raise a family. So yes, my tax bill rose along with all property owners as a result of the debt exclusion to fund the new Galvin Middle School. The return on that investment is an education facility of the highest quality for the next generation of Wakefield’s young people. In turn, those young people will go on to contribute to our town in myriad ways. But that is not all that homeowners like me get for our tax dollars.

“When you think about it, investing in public education is also a down payment on our financial future,” Liakos maintained. “Consider this: When my neighbors in Greenwood recently put their house up for sale, they could barely keep up with offers from young families looking to buy a home in a town with a school like the Galvin, an early childhood center and tuition-free full-day Kindergarten. The house sold quickly and at a very good price. That raises the value of homes across my neighborhood, giving all of us greater equity and financial stability. It also strengthens the town’s broader tax base that in turn sustains all of our key public services. Are these good returns on an additional $200 a year? You bet they are.

“We must ask similar questions in considering the future of Wakefield Memorial High School,” Liakos said. “How do we invest in the high school in ways that deliver the greatest long-term returns for our students, their families and the financial stability of the town? We’ve begun a process that seeks those answers, with a carefully considered professional analysis of our options — both for the building project and how to pay for it. Now we need to discuss those options with the broader community of parents, town officials and taxpayers, over the coming year. A similar process for the Galvin led us to right answers and a school that everyone in Wakefield should be proud of. I’m confident we’ll get there again.”

Markham said that he believes a new high school is needed and would support a debt exclusion to fund it.

“I would support the use of a debt exclusion to finance the cost of a new high school,” Markham said. “Like the financial mechanisms used in the recent past to finance other town buildings, including the new Galvin Middle School, a debt exclusion allows competitive borrowing with a finite term of the debt, 20 years for example. This mechanism allows the Town Administration, working with the School Department, to plan and budget for the increase cost across the term of the exclusion with the expectation that once paid off, the annual increase to the homeowner will cease without being a permanent increase to the Town’s annual tax base as in the case of an override.

“The question about which mechanism I would prefer in financing a new high school presumes the answer to the first and more important question of would I support building a new high school and I do,” Markham continued. “A solid case has and will continue to be made about the absolute need for a new, modern and efficient high school for both building structural and mechanical systems needs as well as academic, extracurricular, sports, health and social needs of today students.

“The high school is becoming worn and inefficient as a building that must serve and support over 1,300 students, facility and staff each day in a 21st Century learning environment,” Markham added. “Aside from the Galvin Middle School, the high school is perhaps the most used and busiest town building and should be constructed, maintained and supported as such. For a building that is over 40 years old, it is past its useful life and is showing its faults. Mechanical systems, such as HVAC, roof structure, doors and windows, security and protection, are well outdated and in gross disrepair. Furthermore, a critical evaluation report from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the academic accreditation agency whose work and guidance is highly regarded across the United States, has placed Wakefield Memorial High School on probationary status until the necessary facility infrastructure and educational standard are met. Our students and graduates deserve the best quality and affordable high school we can muster. A loss of accreditation would be an immeasurable blow to the creditability and sustainability of our entire school department and that is unacceptable for our children and grandchildren.

“Also showing its age are the academic, extracurricular and social-emotional components of the high school, Markham said. “Classrooms, labs, libraries and other learning spaces built in the early 1970s simply do not serve the needs of education today. Much like the classrooms of the 1970s did not look like or function like the classrooms of the 1930s. We live in a multi-national, competitive education, business, technological and economic world and we do a disservice to our children by not properly preparing them to enter and compete in that world. Substandard classrooms and learning facilities need to be updated and/or replaced with educationally sound and technology savvy spaces and resources that would be included in a new high school. Other important school spaces and facilities would also be updated and improved, such as the kitchen, cafe, library, technical programs, special education services, social and emotional supports, theater arts, music spaces and administration and guidance support offices and rooms.

“Lastly, and equally important, we as a community of citizens and taxpayers must be able to afford and support a new high school building and campus,” Markham concluded. “A state-of-the-art high school with a strong academic reputation only adds to the property values of our homes. Wakefield must be a place where local young couples stay to raise their families as much as a place where others seek to move to for our affordable, yet top quality of life. We as townspeople must understand and engage in all aspects of this decision-making process and be careful to appreciate those families and seniors that are struggling with making ends meet and develop consensus and balance.  As elected officials we have an absolute obligation to be mindful and respectful of the limitations of our citizens while advocating for moderated, yet strategic, thoughtful progress in our schools. This is the type of School Committee member that I have been over the past six years and the type of bold, student-focused, yet fair and moderate leader that I promise to continue being if reelected.”

Masse said that he would have to see definitive plans before he would decide whether to support a new high school.

“It’s premature for anyone to provide a definitive answer to this question,” Masse said “It’s absolutely clear that something needs to be done to address the deteriorating high school, but for me to say outright that I would or would not support an extensive project before seeing a concrete plan with clear financials is unrealistic. Here is what I pledge: that, when this question comes before the School Committee, I will approach it with the understanding that my duty is to advance the quality of education provided in Wakefield while also understanding there is a financial impact upon every taxpayer in town. I will only support a project if it provides both a gain in our ability to educate our students while not significantly contributing a negative impact upon the Town’s taxpayers, many of whom are on fixed incomes and are already grappling with steep property tax increases.”

Powers favors a debt exclusion to pay for a new high school.

“The high school is old and needs to be addressed,” Powers said. “The process has just started to explore what is the best option for the high school and the students and staff. The building was constructed in two parts and looks sound from the outside but needs major improvements to its infrastructure. I have a son who is now attending the high school and another who will be in ninth grade this September. I am also concerned about the financing of any high school project and am in favor of a debt-exclusion. If we stay on course we can secure favorable financing.

“The town is solid financially and we should to be able to secure favorable finance rates to help lower overall cost,” Powers added. “As a member of the School Committee I will work with my peers to assure that we obtain max funding from the MSBA.

“Improving the high school will benefit the town as a whole by attracting new residents and stable home values,” Powers said. “I understand the diversity of Wakefield’s population and would work with Selectmen to look at methods of decreasing additional cost to seniors and others. There is still much work to be done and we have very talented people involved. The Galvin is an example of our citizens investing in education and our town. We have more to do and have to remember and take into account the financial commitment that was made by our citizens and continue to be financial responsible when addressing and complete future projects.”