Frequently Asked Questions About the 2019 Debt Exclusion and Operating Override

Why do we need to rebuild the high school?

Arlington needs a new high school because of increasing enrollment and a deteriorating and outdated facility that no longer meets today’s educational needs.

  • The high school is nearly at capacity today with 1,381 students. Enrollment at AHS has grown 22% in the past ten years, with an anticipate additional 17% in the next three years alone. By 2027, projected enrollment at AHS will be over 1,800 students.
  • The school is on accreditation warning due to its poor facility. The building no longer meets educational standards and >30% of classrooms are inadequate and interfere with instruction. In addition, the antiquated and small science labs create hazardous conditions.
  • Finally, the aging building is deteriorating. Numerous facility and mechanical systems are at the end of their lifespan and in need of extensive repair. For example, the antiquated HVAC system means there are significant temperature fluctuations making many classrooms too hot or too cold. Windows are not energy efficient and many leak. Power wiring throughout complex is inadequate for load.

More information is at Back to top

When will the high school be completed?

If the debt exclusion passes, construction would begin no earlier than Spring 2020. The project is currently anticipated to be a multi-phased construction project with partial occupancy of the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math) and Performing Arts wings in January 2022 and full occupancy in 2024. More detailed construction timeline estimates will be determined when the Construction Manager is hired during the Design Development Phase. Back to top

What role does the state (MSBA) have in the high school project?

The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) is the government authority through which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts reimburses cities and towns for school construction projects. It participates in the management of any project that qualifies for reimbursement, and studies and designs that are eligible for funding must comply with its process and standards. For more information about the MSBA, visit its web site. The MSBA is estimated to contribute a total of $86M - approximately one-third of the project cost. Back to top

What are the cost factors for the high school project?

There are three primary cost factors that contribute to the overall cost of the high school project:

  1. High Schools are costly because they are large and require many specialized spaces.
  2. The Boston area construction market is expensive, with 4% annual construction cost escalation.
  3. AHS has specific factors that increase its cost above typical high school projects.

More information is at Back to top

What happens if the high school debt exclusion (Question 1) does not pass?

Since the high school’s enrollment and facility needs are pressing, we would have to address the needs of the high school even if we fail to pass a debt exclusion.

Arlington has 120 days (from MSBA approval on April 10) to secure local funding. If the June debt exclusion fails, a second vote could be taken with the same exact budget and plan that was approved by the MSBA in April.

If we fail to secure local funding within the 120 days (i.e. all debt exclusion votes fail), the Town will lose MSBA state funding for now and must:

  1. Address AHS’ deficiencies on our own through a renovation/addition with NO state funding or
  2. Reapply to get into the MSBA pipeline (which would likely entail missing our 2023 NEASC accreditation window).

More information is at Back to top

I heard a few Town/School offices reside in the high school today. Will those offices be included in the new building?

To reduce costs of the project, the AHS Building Committee decided to relocate Town IT, Facilities and Comptroller offices. However, there are no feasible alternate locations for the remaining educationally-related offices and resources and they will be included in the new facility. They include: school district administration and payroll offices, Menotomy Preschool, LABBB Special Education Collaborative and Arlington Community Education. Refer to the AHS Building Committes’s blog Parmenter School Analysis for more information. Back to top

How can I find out more about the Arlington High School Building Project?

The Arlington High School Building Committee has documented the project in detail since 2016 at An extensive FAQ section is available here. Back to top

What is Proposition 2 ½ ?

Proposition 2 ½ is a state law passed in 1980 that controls how local property taxes may be raised. Under the law known as Prop 2 ½, the town can raise property taxes up to 2 ½ percent town-wide over the previous year, leaving aside new construction. Any increase beyond this levy limit must be approved directly by the majority of voters. Back to top

What is a debt exclusion?

A debt exclusion is a temporary increase in taxes to pay for specific capital projects. Debt exclusions allow tax revenue to be temporarily increased to pay the debt service on the projects. A debt exclusion must be approved by a majority of voters. The authorization to increase revenue beyond the levy limit lasts only for the life of the debt. In this case, the debt will last about 30 years. Back to top

What is an operating override?

When the cost of town services exceeds the limits of Proposition 2 ½, communities may ask voters to consider a ballot initiative for an operating override. An override permits a property tax increase greater than the 2 ½ percent limit, though rate increases are limited to 2 ½ percent in subsequent years. The ballot initiative must specify exactly how much additional revenue is being sought. Back to top

How will the debt exclusion and operating override affect my taxes?

The tax impact calculator will show impacts for a particular property value. The town has also posted a table showing estimated tax impacts for both questions.

The AHS Debt Exclusion (Question 1) will cost $107 a year for every $100,000 of assessed home value for the 30-year duration of the debt. The change will not appear immediately on tax bills. Borrowing will be phased in conjunction with school construction, with the full amount appearing over 2-3 years.

The $5.5 million operating override (Question 2) will cost $50 a year for every $100,000 of assessed home value. The change will appear on tax bills early next year and is a permanent increase. The Select Board will not propose another Proposition 2 ½ override for at least four years if this question passes. Back to top

Why isn’t a dollar amount listed for Question 1? Are there limits to what the town can spend on the high school building project if the debt exclusion passes?

Proposition 2 ½ sets the language of a debt exclusion vote and does not allow dollar amounts to be included in these types of ballot questions. The amount that can be added to the tax rate is determined by the Massachusetts Department of Revenue based on “the borrowing amount authorized or contemplated for the described purpose or purposes at the time of the referendum vote.” The expected borrowing amount is listed in the Town of Arlington’s ballot question explanations. The Department of Revenue looks at what the voters are told projects will cost and limits debt exclusions accordingly.

The Department of Revenue allows the borrowing amount to exceed the fixed amount only if it is “a modest amount attributable to inflation, new regulatory requirements or minor project changes.” Unless the Department of Revenue found that the additional amounts fell within these narrow exceptions, the Building Committee would perform a Value Engineering (cost reduction) exercise to bring the project back on budget. The total project budget contains several contingencies to mitigate various risks as the project moves forward. Back to top

Are options available for residents who can’t afford the tax increases?

Yes. Several state and local programs offer tax relief to qualifying property owners and renters in the form of exemptions or deferrals. Senior citizens, people in low-income households, veterans, and others who meet the income and asset requirements may be eligible for up to $1,300 off their property tax bill. For more information, see the summary of programs and qualifications at Tax Exemption Programs Chart or contact the Assessor's Office (781-316-3050). The state also offers a Senior Circuit Breaker Tax Credit of up to $1,100.

Residents of Arlington Housing Authority properties will not be affected by the tax increase.

In 2017, Arlington’s Town Meeting passed tax work-off programs for income-eligible seniors and residents with disabilities, as well as veterans, or their respective designees. A tax-relief fund for seniors was also created, along with a mechanism to receive donations from residents when they pay their tax bills. The Council on Aging has created this summary of available programs. For more information about these programs, contact the Council on Aging (781-316-3400). The Council on Aging is not part of, nor does it endorse, Build Arlington's Future and/or the overrides. Back to top

What has Arlington done to expand tax relief programs?

This spring, Town Meeting added a municipal Senior Circuit Breaker program (Article 43 in the 2019 Town Meeting Warrant which passed with a vote 188-5) and increased the income limits for the tax deferral program (Article 38, passed with a vote of 207-2-1), a direct result of Home Rule legislation they passed last year.

The Select Board and Town Meeting have taken several actions to introduce and expand tax-relief options in recent years, including:

  • In 2012 under Article 29 they lowered the interest rate for property-tax deferrals for eligible seniors.
  • In 2012 under Article 30 they increased the annual income limit for seniors to qualify for property-tax deferrals.
  • In 2017 under Article 22 they introduced a property-tax work-off program for residents age 60 and over.
  • In 2017 under Article 23 they introduced the veteran's property-tax work-off program.
  • In 2017 under Article 24 they established an Elderly and Disabled Taxation Aid Fund in Arlington.
  • In 2017 under Article 25 they allowed the income and asset limit requirements to be adjusted annually according to the Consumer Price Index. Given the rising costs of many goods and services, as well as the real estate landscape in Arlington, such an adjustment better reflects income and assets relative to the cost of living. This change is expected to allow more Arlington seniors to be eligible for property-tax exemptions.

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When did Arlington last approve an override?

In June 2011, the voters approved an override in conjunction with a three-year plan that was created by town leaders. At the time, the Board of Selectmen promised not to come back to the town for another override for three years. Due largely to the shift of town employees’ health insurance into the State Group Insurance Commission (GIC), along with above-average revenue growth, the town has not needed to ask for an override for eight years. Back to top

When will Arlington be asked for another override?

If this override passes, the Select Board has committed not to ask for another override for at least 4 years. If this override passes, the spring of 2023 would be the earliest another override would be put on the ballot. Back to top

Why has my tax bill gone up more than 2 ½ percent some years with no override?

The 2 ½ percent limit applies to the total tax revenue on all existing property in town. If your property’s assessed value increased at an above-average rate, your tax bill would have gone up more than the town-wide average. If you think your assessment is too high, there is a process to appeal it. For more information, contact the Assessor’s Office (781-316-3050). Back to top

As our property values go up, doesn’t the Town get more money in taxes?

No. The total amount in property taxes that the Town can collect is limited to a 2.5% increase each year, excluding new growth. Property values in Arlington have been rising faster than 2.5% each year, so the Town's expenditures cannot keep pace due to the 2.5% limit imposed by Proposition 2 ½. When property values increase, the tax rate actually decreases. The tax rate (per $1,000 of assessed value) in Arlington has dropped from $13.79 to $11.26 over the last 5 years. Back to top

If the override is successful, how will the $5.5 million be distributed in the Town budget?

$4.7M of the override plan will be deposited in the override stabilization fund in the first year. This fund is drawn down in the later years when costs, which increase faster than the 2.5% annual cap on revenue growth, outstrip revenues. The purpose of the stabilization fund is to allow one override vote to last for multiple years.

Most of the funds raised from the override will not be earmarked for any specific program or town department. Rather, they will ensure that the town has sufficient funds to pay for all budgeted expenditures. The override plan contains additional funding for education and improved mobility for all residents. The plan phases in additional funding for the School Department’s five-year plan, with $600,000 added in FY (Fiscal Year) 2020 and FY2021 and $800,000 added in FY2022 and FY2023. These funds will be used to address enrollment growth, narrow the achievement gap, improve instruction, and attract, retain, and develop staff. The Town will also add $250,000 to the existing budget in FY2020 to support the Complete Streets and Age-Friendly Community initiatives.

The $5.5 million override plan is shown in the following table. Back to top

What happens if the operating override (Question 2) does not pass?

The town manager confirms that a hiring freeze would go into effect immediately for most town positions that become vacant. This would include unfilled positions in police and fire departments. In anticipation of the budget shortfall, the town would implement an austerity budget in the next fiscal year. This would necessarily involve service cuts. We would not have the funds that are needed to improve pedestrian accessibility and senior transportation.

A failed override would have a detrimental effect on our schools and our students. The school department would not receive sufficient funding to implement the five-year budget plan. Most of this funding is necessary because of the dramatic enrollment growth of the past decade. When student populations grow, school budgets need to grow, too. The school department would not be able to direct sufficient resources toward closing the achievement gap, which is the performance gap between high needs students and the general population. We would not be able to hire sufficient staff — including school counselors, nurses, and reading teachers — to keep up with our growing population. We would not be able to meet our obligations to all of our students. With a looming deficit of more than $14 million and many unfunded requests for resources, morale will suffer and teachers may leave Arlington for districts that offer job security.

In 2011, Arlington had to cut 32 teachers. Our police department had the lowest staffing level per capita in the metropolitan area, and our fire department was so understaffed that response times grew longer. Senior services and transportation programs were threatened. Facing even deeper cuts, Arlington residents voted in favor of an operating override that stabilized our finances and restored lost services. Town leaders proposed an override this year so they can continue to provide critical services without having to put the community through hiring freezes, painful cuts, or lost services. Back to top

How can I help?

Volunteer to get out the vote on election day! Our need for people to make phone calls to supporters between 2:30 and 8 pm is critical. Sign up here. If you haven't already, Let us know you’re voting YES on both questions. Back to top

How can I stay informed?

Sign up for our email list or follow us on Facebook. Back to top

Who is involved in this campaign?

Build Arlington’s Future is a volunteer-driven campaign. Please sign up to volunteer! The campaign chairs are Select Board member Dan Dunn, School Committee member Len Kardon, and Finance Committee member Dean Carman. Back to top