BREWSTER -- The Ladies Library meeting room was filled to capacity on Feb. 27, with over 100 attendees, and why not  -- with the biggest expense in town history on the ballot in two months; $131,825,655 for the Nauset Regional High School renovation.

The Brewster Community Network arranged the informational forum and a panel of speakers.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority will cover $36.6 million of that estimated construction expense provided that voters Brewster, Orleans, Eastham and Wellfleet all approve the project at town meetings and on the ballot in May. Approval would mean that the four district towns would fund the remainder of the cost, or about $96 million.

But the renovation has drawn opposition from residents who argue that eliminating School Choice students, who this year comprise nearly a quarter of the total enrollment, would permit a smaller, cheaper, new version of Nauset High.

“There’s a lot of talk we can do a different project,” declared Greg Levasseur, Nauset School Building Committee chairman. “That would take a decision by the school committee. If they did that, this project would go away and we’d have to start all over, and the $36.6 million goes away. It’s a very rigid process. It takes time to get on the list. Lincoln turned down a $50 million project. Now they’re doing it for $100 million. We feel after [planning] it for two years and two months this is the best financial solution to fix up Nauset high school for the next 50 years.”

Nauset high school has over 200 students attending from other districts via School Choice and the renovation includes them in its capacity of 905.

“The purpose or intent was to help districts fill empty seats in existing classrooms,” Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said. “So the individual is added to a classroom that’s already there. It’s very rare for a building project to be proposed that includes build out for space for Choice students.”

That’s been the target for project opponents.

“I don’t question Nauset High School is tired,” Dave Danish, chairman of the Brewster Republican Town Committee and a panelist, said. “I question that we’re building a high school of 214,000 square feet, 16 percent bigger, when enrollment is declining. Currently there are 921 students enrolled and only 616 reside in the district and (there are 219 School Choice and 86 tuition students) are not paying one cent towards the capital cost of the renovation.”

Danish said that the project includes unnecessary expenses, such as an oversized 750-seat auditorium, shown on blueprints as a "performing arts center," and it can be done for less.

(Danish, who in recent months has spearheaded a concerned citizens group that opposes the project, said the group has created a web site at noto905.com.)

Proponents argue Choice enhances education at Nauset.

“Our fear is if the program is impacted you’ll start to see kids again migrate to charter schools. Using the tuition from Choice offsets the operating budget for 22 to 25 teachers,” Nauset Regional School Committee member John O’Reilly said. “The additional money allows us to provide individual programs for kids. I wholeheartedly support the School Choice program and I think my kids received a great education because of what School Choice brings to the district. There’s nothing wrong with being an excellent school system.”

O'Reilly wasn't  a panelist; he rose from the audience to address a committee-related question.

Nauset high school hasn’t been updated since it was built 48 years ago, except for work in the mid 1990s that added classrooms. Nauset was one of 85 schools to apply for the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s grant program that will cover $36.6 million of the cost; it took two years for Nauset to be one of 15 to 20 schools added to the funding list -- most districts wait for five or six years.

“The MSBA program is basically an eight-step process. Nauset is at step 3,” explained Levasseur. “We have a project manager. We’ve evaluated the property. The towns paid $1.3 million for a feasibility study.”

Up to code

Levasseur noted the current structure doesn’t meet today’s building codes and to merely bring the high school up to code would cost $98 million; $92 million for construction and $6 million to relocate locker rooms from the basement. There’s no insulation, no fire sprinklers, and a shortage of electric outlets.

“(Costs tied to bringing it up to code) are not eligible for state reimbursement,” Levasseur said. So the proposed renovation and upgrade is actually cheaper than a project just to bring it up to code -- $98 million for the code fixes versus $96 million that would be the towns' share after the state grant.

Renovating Nauset for a smaller student population of 600, without 219 School Choice students and 84 tuition students from Provincetown and Truro, would cost $124 million to $126 million. But that would be going back to step one, with the school building authority, and starting the process all over again.

Levasseur said he knew of no case where that scenario led to a second grant appropriation. Besides that, construction costs would likely rise with the passage of more time.

The proposed work would renovate 60 percent of the buildings, demolish two and a half of them, with the cafeteria and science buildings being entirely replaced. Classrooms would be “right sized” to at least 825 square feet, from 600, according to Levasseur.

The final construction cost is actually unknown, and will not be known before the town meetings.

“We won’t know the actual cost until the voters from the four towns vote to [proceed] to the next stage then we’ll get the bids from the contractors,” Levasseur said. “Cape Tech had a $110 million estimate but when they opened the bids it was down to $94 million.”

That would be a nice surprise.

Who pays what

As it is based on current enrollments Brewster would be responsible for $45,746,409 of the cost, Orleans $18,588,049, Eastham $18,416,643 and Wellfleet $12,474,562. Brewster Town Administrator Peter Lombardi, also a panelist, said the tax hit based on a 25-year bond would be $324 a year for a home assessed at $445,000 (the average value) in Brewster.

Wulfson noted that towns sending tuition students to Nauset, such as Provincetown and Truro, can set their own tuition rates as these are agreements between school committees. Interdistrict Choice was set up in the 1990s and it is up to the receiving district whether to accept students or not. The tuition is set at $5,000 per student by state law.

“Thirteen schools enroll more than 100 Choice Students in the state. Nauset high school’s 214 are at the top of the list,” Wulfson said. “A large number are from D-Y and Monomoy and they bring in $1.7 million to the district (some have specially tailored programs that are charged more than $5,000). Nauset pays $280,000 for students choicing out. There are 79 School Choice students at the [Nauset] middle school.”

In response to a question Wulfson said raising the $5,000 would require a legislative change.

Choice words

“Losing Choice kids is problematic to a district. Losing kids you have to cut programs. It’s a cycle people are concerned about,” he added. “D-Y is losing 400 kids, one of the largest numbers in the state.”

Students going to a charter school are a further drain, as the rates are set by a complicated formula; roughly $19,000 at the Light House Charter and $23,000 to go to Sturgis.

Danish said 24 Choice students come from Barnstable, 86 from D-Y and 101 from Monomoy.

“School Choice only allows $5,000 (for tuition) while we pay the remaining $15,500 because the Nauset School District pays $20,500 to educate a student in our system,” Danish declared. “We believe that puts an undue burden on the taxpayers of $3.2 million a year.”

Danish pointed out the average School Choice population in the state is 1.7 percent while at Nauset 23.7 percent of the students are from out-of-district.

“Nauset has harvested School Choice to replace lost students,” Danish pointed out. “There’s been a 30 percent loss in the system over 25 years. Building a school for 900 students will leave us even more dependent on students from outside. Brewster has already built two elementary schools that can’t be filled.”

People wondered where the students would go during construction? The district will use modular classrooms over 30 months at a cost of $3 million, not reimbursed by the MSBA.

“What we envision with Choice eliminated, [is that] the program currently offered would suffer greatly,” O’Reilly said. “That’s the reason we decided on 905 students.”

He noted Nauset used to send 25 students to Sturgis in 2014; now they send 13 and save $285,000 thanks to better programs that keep students in the district.

“So parents could choose to send kids to another district if we didn’t maintain our program,” O Reilly concluded.

Meanwhile, the Nauset district has posted a notice on its web page saying applications for Choice students will be available starting March 13 for the next school year. It also has a "Come to Nauset" video on the district's home page.