Barrington voters say yes to exceeding 4 percent tax cap

Nearly 1,000 people attend special FTM, fill BHS auditorium and cafeteria

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In November, Barrington residents voted in favor of building a new middle school in town, as they approved a referendum question during the general election.

On Thursday night, residents again voiced their support for the project. 

By nearly a 2-to-1 measure, residents voted in favor of exceeding the state-mandated 4 percent tax cap. The vote will allow the town to make payments on a $68.4 million bond to build the new school. After hours of public comments, and another hour to conduct a paper ballot vote, the motion to exceed the tax cap passed — 590 votes for, 349 against.

"This is democracy in action," said Kate Brody, chairwoman of the school committee. "People made it a priority to be here this evening."

The crowd of voters included a number of young families, and on more than one occasion residents pleaded with Moderator Julia Califano to end the public comment period and call for a vote on the issue. People said families were being forced to leave as the hour was well-past their children's bed-times.

Ms. Califano said meeting rules required giving everyone who wanted to talk an opportunity to do so.

Many took full advantage of the opportunity. 

Malcolm Sockut was the first to speak. He first said that not building a new middle school would not reduce property values in Barrington. He said it would not result in a drop in student grades, and it would not act as a deterrent when the district hires new teachers.

He then asked if the district could make repairs to the existing middle school and asked if Barrington has ever exceeded the tax cap in prior years. 

Ms. Califano said the cap had only been around since 2013 and that this was a first for the town. Patrick Guida, co-chairman of the building committee, said a full renovation would have actually cost more than new construction. Larry Trim, who works for the architecture firm hired for the project, further explained why a renovation would cost more. 

Mr. Sockut then said never had a construction project in Rhode Island come in under budget.

The next speaker, Bill Carr, challenged officials on the price of the project. Mr. Carr said he had worked in the building construction business for 40 years, and then he listed prices per square foot for average projects in New York and Boston. Both were $200 or less. He then said the price per square foot for the Barrington project was $477 per square foot.

"Your numbers are grossly understated," said Mr. Guida about Mr. Carr's New York and Boston figures. Sam Bradner, of the Peregrine Group which is working the project, echoed Mr. Guida's sentiments. 

Some folks made pleas to the crowd, hoping to build support for building a new middle school and exceeding the tax cap. 

Julie Owens tried to find common ground within the crowd. "I think we can all agree the building is at the end of its useful life," she said, adding that the price is where most folks disagree. Ms. Owens said the price per square foot is actually very comparable to other school construction projects in Massachusetts. She said a no vote would not address any of the problems.

"I don't want to pay, but I have to," she said. "Do the right thing."

Robert Andreozzi challenged school and building officials to do a better job staying under budget. He also said the district needs to do a better job taking care of its buildings. He said he lived in a home that was 80 or 90 years old and he wasn't going to knock it down. He said he takes care of the house. 

Mai Donohue voiced her support for a yes vote. She said she does not have a lot of money and her kids are all grown, but she knows that building a new school is the right thing to do for Barrington's children. 

"Think about the future," she said.

Steve Carlotti said school officials need to do more than just lean on taxpayers for the funding for a new school. He said they needed to look at their own $47 million operating budget in order to find some savings to off-set the new school costs. 

"You ought to be able to find something in $47 million," he said. 

A County Road resident who recently moved to town from St. Louis said he brought his family to Barrington because of the schools, and that an investment in a new building was warranted. He said that the roof leaks that forced the closure of the middle school earlier this week following a nor'easter was "the closest thing to divine intervention" he has ever seen.

Mary Teixeira, a longtime resident, said too many people move to Barrington for the schools and then, when their children graduate, they move out. She said the town needs to find a way to commend those longtime residents who stick around. She then told the people with young children in the schools "don't run out of town — stay here and put somebody else's kids through school."

After the lengthy public comment period, a motion was made to take a paper ballot vote. That exercise took about an hour, and yielded the final tally — 590-to-349.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.