I have cast my vote in favor of the debt exclusion override for the elementary school project. This should not be a surprise to anyone who reads the Indy or has had to listen to me talk about this project that I have followed so closely since its inception.
With so many singing the praises of the school project, one might get the impression that this environmentally friendly building and community friendly site were a foregone conclusion, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The planned net-zero building with massively improved playing fields were hard won victories, and are unlikely to be duplicated if this project does not come to fruition.
A fully electric, solar-powered, geothermally driven building was far from guaranteed. Were it not for members of the public staunchly defending the net-zero by-law, we could easily have ended up compromising this critically important first implementation of real climate action.
The much valued community athletic fields were at risk of elimination, first via site selection and then via “value engineering”. The fields were retained and will be vastly improved because of public support for the fields themselves and by securing Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding. It fell to three town residents to put together an application for CPA funding. Despite having to run the gauntlet of people still bearing grudges over the last project and receiving very little support from town leadership during the process, enough members of the CPA committee saw that it was an important opportunity to vastly improve a key recreational area.
The size of the building, and therefore the project cost, was significantly reduced but only after some of us braved the usual slings and arrows of personal attacks to argue for fiscal and environmental restraint.
There was bitter debate over the selection of site, involving stubborn adherence to overblown prejudices and urban legend. Fortunately, dispassionate scientific evidence prevailed because the architects and geotechnical experts held their ground and demonstrated that less complicated construction, lessened duration and disruption, and far superior outdoor learning and play spaces were achievable at Fort River.
Some key differences between this and the previous project included greater continuous public oversight, a more diverse building committee with different life experiences and mindsets, and designers who better understood that their client is not only school and town leadership but also the engaged public. This project also does not suffer from the excessive student enrollment of the previous project (750 students then versus 575 now), the problematic grade reconfiguration (grades 2-6 then versus K-5 now), a cramped site with no room for outdoor play (Wildwood then and Fort River now), or disregard for climate change (the previous plan employed two oil-fired boilers with no photovoltaics versus the currently planned net-zero energy building). I genuinely think that this is the best plan this town is capable of producing.
The vote on May 2 is in no way the end of the road of these efforts. If it passes, we must remain vigilant to ensure that the promised climate actions and community playing fields remain intact. Costs will continue to be a challenge and decisions will need to be made to retain the quality of the product while minding a budget. Even though the town council failed in its first opportunity to provide sufficient tax relief, we must continue to press for the use of capital reserves and other modalities, and hold those who disregard these needs accountable at the ballot box this fall when every town council seat is up for reelection.
I hope that you will join me in voting for a quality project and continuing to advocate to maintain its strengths and mitigate against the financial impacts on residents.
Maria Kopicki is a resident of District 5