October 21, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer
Several parents who participated in last night's remote Selectmen's meeting expressed discontent, anger, and frustration during the discussion centering around the proposed $40 million combined Hingham Fire and Police Department public safety facility -- the subject of a Special Town Meeting vote on Nov. 21. (Only the $5.53 million for site acquisition is on the agenda.)
Several parents said the schools should come first -- funds to allow Hingham Public Schools students to return to fulltime in-person learning -- including all the necessary accommodations to make that happen; the proposed Foster School renovation or new school with hoped-for partial Massachusetts School Building Authority reimbursement; and repairs to Plymouth River School.
Concerns were also expressed that the town's financial policy states that the fund balance (rainy day fund) cannot be used for recurring operating expenses, including for the schools.
Wanders Drive Resident Susan Ohoro called the current hybrid (combination of in-person and remote learning) model and the limited eight hours of in-person instruction a week "a disaster."
She went on to say that as a parent of three teenagers enrolled in HPS, she questions the Selectmen's spending priorities. "It's outrageous that the town is considering building this monstrosity [referring to the proposed public safety building]. You clearly don't value our public schools. Hingham has the lowest per pupil spending [among its benchmark communities]. We're bankrupting our children's futures," Ohoro said. "This money is critically needed to get the schools reopened. The funds to do this won't come from the state, so it has to come for the taxpayers, like it or not. What we're looking at right now is not pretty. I can't even wrap my head around this project."
In response to her and other parents' comments, the Selectmen reiterated their support for the Foster School project, which they say has been a top priority for some time.
Selectmen Chair Mary Power explained that the MSBA has reached out to the town during the pandemic about both the Foster and PRS projects to see if the town is still interested in moving them forward.
"Both the Selectmen and School Commitee said we need to continue with both projects," she said. "It would have been easy to say no due to the pandemic, but those needs aren't going to go away. We need to move ahead with both projects, and I feel the same about the public safety facility."
The Public Safety Facility Building Committee, Police Chief David Jones, and Fire Chief Steve Murphy emphasize that both the HPD's and the HFD's current facilities are outdated and too small to meet the growing need for their services.
Ohoro emphasized that "getting kids back to school" should be the top priority. "Education is the most important thing for children," she said.
Power explained that the Selectmen have given their promise to provide the necessary financial resources for the HPS reopening plan, which is in phases.
She also assured parents that the Town of Hingham "is very focused on the pandemic -- on ensuring that our community is recovering . . . and that the money needed to reopen the schools in a prudent way to educate our children is available."
Power went on to say that the Selectmen have stated that they trust the School Committee and the school administration "to make wise decisions and that we are prepared to provide financial support as needed."
Lauren Burm, the mother of two elementary school children, questioned the need to "spend this much money" on a public safety facility when there are such "huge gaps" in school funding. "We're not even sure when our children can return to school," she said. "How can we get the school funding issue on the Special Town Meeting agenda to find a way to close those gaps? Why are we choosing a public safety facility over our kids?" she asked.
Shannon Ewer said while she understands that the North Street fire station (which would no longer be used if the public safety building proposal moves forward) isn't safe, she asked, "Is it more unsafe than Foster School is for our children?"
Power reiterated that the Selectmen's goal is to move forward with both projects. "We're focused on considering how we can do both," she said.
Another parent, Courtney Orwig, emphasized the need "to have a real discussion about our schools. It's probable that this [proposed new facility] is a legitimate need, but COVID-19 has really shown the cracks in the schools. Before we move forward with this very expensive project, we need to be sure the schools are getting the attention they deserve."
While Sara Abbott, also a parent, said she fully recognizes why the land purchase for the potential new public safety building is important, she also noted that plans for a new Middle School were "put off until the ceiling caved in" and also expressed concerns about the need to address PRS and Foster School issues.
Abbott further noted that town buildings are not being used to their full capacity due to COVID-19 right now yet aren't being considered for temporary use by the schools to better accommodate social distancing requirements for in-person learning.
"It really does rub the wrong way that we're talking about $5 million for land for a public safety facility when the town is nickel and diming what we are offering for our students," she said.
Selectman Joseph Fisher acknowledged that parents had expressed clear concerns about the schools but noted that the public safety building proposal "is not intended to be in competition with the schools. It's important to focus on both the fire and police departments' needs, but that doesn't mean we are lessening our priority on the schools," Fisher said. "That discussion is important, but it shouldn't stop us from moving forward with the public safety facility proposal."
Special Town Meeting update
At the suggestion of Town Administrator Tom Mayo, the focus of the earlier-proposed warrant articles has been changed to include only a request for voters to authorize the $5.53 million purchase of the 335 Lincoln St. property on which the new facility would be built, since time is running out under the purchase and sale agreement.
The warrant article asking voters to authorize the borrowing of up to $3.3 million for the design, construction, and bid documents was dropped from the agenda for now.
The Advisory Committee will vote tonight on whether or not to support the warrant article.
As planned all along, there will not be a discussion about the overall project cost at the Special Town Meeting nor will voters be asked to fund the building of this facility.
A two-thirds vote would be required for the article to pass because borrowing is involved.
For project details, visit https://hinghamanchor.com/update-possible-nov-21-special-town-meeting-to-consider-public-safety-facility-articles/ The size and scope of the project could change in the interim between the Special Town Meeting if the project gains voter approval and subsequent Town and Special Town Meetings when voters will consider roughly $3.3 million for design, construction, and bid documents, and at a possible later Town Meeting, the full construction cost."Delaying the request for funding for detailed design and construction plans will allow more time for the town to [further consider] the financial aspects in consideration of COVID-19," Mayo said