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Monday, February 7, 2011

District to ask OK on office plan

MERRIMACK – Construction might be years away, but town voters could lay the foundation next month for a new central office building for the Merrimack School District.

After years of research and consideration, district administrators will ask voters next month to approve the initial funding for new office space, which would eventually be built next to Merrimack High School on McElwain Street.

The warrant article, to go to voters at the March 7 Deliberative Session, calls for up to $200,000 to go to a new capital reserve fund for the project.

The financing would come from a budget surplus, not additional tax dollars.

It would provide the necessary first step toward replacing the existing offices, which have become aged and outdated since they were built as private residences in 1963, according to district officials.

If voters approve the request, administrators could return within a year or two asking for funding for the full project, estimated to cost about $1.8 million.

“We’ve got computer services in one of the basements. … We’ve got the superintendent in an old bedroom,” Jody Vaillancourt, chairwoman of the Merrimack School Board, said Wednesday.

“People all seem to agree with the need to do something,” she said. “The question is: What’s the best way to move forward?”

Officials have been discussing upgrades to the superintendent’s office since 1999 when they included it as a line item in the Capital Improvement Program. Members of the district’s planning and building committee have been working since 2008 to review building options, including renovating the existing buildings and leasing different space.

On administrators’ orders, the committee has reviewed the current buildings, assessed the district’s needs and compared different sites across town, according to a consolidation report, presented this fall to the School Board. And among the alternatives, committee members determined the new building option to be the most “efficient and cost-effective solution.”

“This Committee feels strongly that while this project has been put off for many reasons, it can wait no longer,” committee members, led by Chairman Richard Hendricks, wrote in the report. “The data supports that the building is necessary and relevant for the safety and improved functionality of the (district) staff to better conduct business.”

A one-story building with about 10,800 square feet would be between the high school and Mastricola Elementary School athletic field, and could meet the district’s needs, hosting all central office and special education staff members, according to the committee report.

Preliminary estimates for such a building run about $1.8 million, though that figure could change depending on the final design and specifications, committee members wrote.

“Since this is not a facility that will be used for student education, it does not have to be built to the same building standards that a new school building would require,” they wrote.

If voters agree next month to create the capital reserve fund, the School Board could return next year, asking voters to fund the full project through a bond, according to Matt Shevenell, the district’s business administrator. Or they could request approval for more surplus funds to further defray the costs and return the following year requesting the full funding, Shevenell said Wednesday. He has not yet reviewed the project to determine the possible tax impact.

Several project bonds are scheduled to be paid off by 2013, and school committee members are likely to wait until then before asking voters to commit to the full funding, said Vaillancourt, the board chairwoman.

That would effectively “negate any tax spike,” she said.

“We did a lot of exploration into what our bonded debt was now,” Vaillancourt said. “We want to make sure we approach this in a careful and cost-effective way.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.