April 3 is shaping up to be a very important date for the Fall River School District.
During the spring election, the district will try to pass a referendum, asking voters to approve $7.8 million for upgrades to facilities and athletic fields.
Since last October, District Administrator Mike Garrow has been working diligently to educate Fall River residents about the referendum through monthly meetings, the district’s web site, and newsletters, public flyers through the mail, athletic game programs and social media platforms. Referendum information has also been posted in the lobby of the high school near the front office.
Garrow wants to make sure Fall River residents know how vital the referendum is.
“It’s all about getting the word out, making sure folks have accurate information and that they know and understand exactly what it is the district is looking at,” Garrow said.
Garrow knows there are some misconceptions about the referendum and how the district will use the funding, if passed. The administrator said the referendum goes far beyond funding solely for athletics.
“I know the two previous times the district had gone forward (with a referendum), it had been almost 100 percent athletically-based, whereas here we’re talking a holistic approach, trying to set the district forward for the next 20 years,” Garrow said.
While athletic facility upgrades are a large component, in addition, Fall River wants to improve infrastructure, safety and security, learning spaces and technology, surveillance and a few other items.
Garrow believes paying for improvements in the near future would save the district and taxpayers large expenses down the road. According to Garrow, even with a small mill rate increase, Fall River would have the third-lowest rate among similar school districts in the area.
“Our borrowing rate would be about $600,000 per year with a passed referendum,” Garrow said. “If the referendum fails, we lose 17 percent of aid. That 17 percent of aid based on what we’re currently receiving totals about $550,000 and that includes no maintenance, updates or anything else that the referendum would provide.”
With the referendum, residents would see a $.70 cent increase in their mill rate and it would cost the district $600,000 a year for upgrades. If it doesn’t pass, the district pays $550,000 per year to maintain facilities. Garrow said paying for the referendum is a “no brainer.”
“If we pass the referendum, residents will actually spend less in the long run,” Garrow said. “That’s a hard concept for people to understand because we’re generating debt, but we’re saving money in the long run.
“We’re not only making the district a better environment for us, we’re making it better for our kids and we’re being very thoughtful and very responsible in our planning and it makes fiscal sense for the average tax payer as well.”
Originally, the district was aiming for about $10 million in funding, but has decreased the amount to less than $8 million.
Garrow believes it’s the perfect time for this funding package to pass. The district will be debt-free from past referendum borrowing after the 2018-19 school year, borrowing rates are still low, the mill rate is healthy, and Fall River students are performing at a high level.
“We have things kind of clicking now; I wouldn’t say we’ve reached a pinnacle by any sense, but we’re continuing to improve,” Garrow said. “Fall River is on an upswing, so for us to take on this debt right now, it really is perfect timing.”
Fall River went to a referendum twice in 2012, with mixed results. Residents approved funding for heating and air conditioning improvements, but denied building a new track and football field. In the fall of 2012, another push for referendum funding failed. Prior to that, Garrow said Fall River received referendum funding in 1998.
Overall, Garrow said the referendum has received positive feedback from the community. There are some who remain skeptical, including former district administrator Steve Rubert. Rubert served the district for 35 years as a teacher, principal and superintendent before retiring in 2001.
“In essence, the referendum has been voted on by the public three times and all times it’s been negative,” Rubert said. “The first time was at an annual meeting around 2011 and then two actual referendum votes, having been turned down twice.”
Rubert said the cost and location of the proposed athletic field are his two biggest points of contention. He said more than $1 million is slated for maintenance and improvements to dishwashers and the district’s HVAC system. However, Rubert said money through a reserve fund would cover those items if they can’t be earmarked for the district’s annual budget.
“That reserve is more than $1.5 million now, so even if you decided right now to pay for it, there is money for that,” Rubert said. “We shouldn’t go to referendum asking people for more money when they’ve already paid money for this.”
According to Rubert, another plan is to replace roofs on district buildings. He said not all roofs need to be replaced immediately and could be spaced out through the next few years.
“Out of $7.8 million, the $1.44 million should come out of reserves or from a regular year’s budget,” Rubert said. “The rest is for the athletic field, about $6.5 million.”
Rubert believes the proposed athletic field is too far from school facilities and the district should maintain what it already has.
“I’ve heard all kinds of excuses, like it floods all the time…” Rubert said. “But in reality, I’ve been here for about 48 years and I’ve seen it flood maybe four times. There was a grass track there at one time and it has the baseball and softball diamond on it now. It has the football field on it now, so it is developable, but not for all the softball diamonds they want. But is the school responsible for developing a community facility and asking tax payers to pay $6.5 million to have that recreation facility? In the past, the answer has been no.”