The Projects Interview

Gardner MA Mayor Michael Nicholson

Gardner MA Mayor Michael Nicholson speaks about Projects and More in the Chair City of Gardner.

Gardner Magazine Publisher Werner Poegel interviews Mayor Nicholson. Gardner Mayor Michael Nicholson gave us almost an hour of his valuable time to speak about many items of concern to the citizens of Gardner. He answered every question we asked him. To listen to the complete interview, just click on the Play button below:

Interview with Gardner MA Mayor Michael Nicholson 7-6-22

Publisher’s note: We will be providing a full transcription of the interview, but wanted you to have the ability to listen for yourself as well while we worked on the transcription.

The New School and Taxes

We asked Mayor Nicholson about the new Gardner Elementary School. The school has the features which will be great for Gardner students. The hefty price tag of about $90 million will not be a burden to the taxpayers. Here’s why: Gardner had borrowed money for another school and paid it off. 3 years ago, it already started paying towards the new school, so tax bills for the past couple of years have already reflected the new Elementary School The Mayor did explain why the first and second quarter fiscal 2023 real estate tax bills will be higher – not to worry, the third and 4th quarter bills will end up being reduced to make up for it so the total yearly bill will come out the same as expected. Read his full explanation in a Press Release.

Gardner Magazine Werner Poegel spoke with Mayor Nicholson about the new school and taxes. Read the full article. For those concerned about your real estate tax bill, your worries will be eased by the time you get to the end..

Poegel:  Mayor Nicholson, in about a week or so, the new Gardner Elementary School is slated to be substantially complete.   How does this school compare to others in the state?

Nicholson: I think in the state this is going to be quite different.  It’s the first time we’ve seen a building of this size.  But It fits our needs, in a way that it looks big, but the space is utilized in a way that’s meant to bring the students together.  And I think that after what we’ve seen in the past two years, where we had that remote period with our students, particularly with the  younger ones, you learn a lot more than reading, writing, and arithmetic in a classroom.  You learn how to share, you learn how to be a friend, you learn how to interact with people, you learn how to talk…So there are spaces that are just in the hallway, that if a teacher wants to take their students out and do work in what’s called a congregate learning area, which is just a space out in the foyer of a building, in the area, but it got a white board there, it’s got learning supplies there for students in places that they can interact with each other.  A shared learning environment that’s integrated sot that it forces students to work with each other.  I think that’s neat.  I think one of the cooler aspects of the building is I think the preschool wing of the building has heated floors, on the ground that students are gonna have nap time and there’s tile floors throughout the building.  So it’s to make sure the floor isn’t cold which is something that I wouldn’t even have thought of before I came in and saw that’s what the architects had previously approved for the building.  There’s a lot out there you wouldn’t have thought of having gone to school when I went to school, let alone when several other people in the community went to school before that.  And it’s just a really neat building, the technology in it meets our needs there.  Every room also has its own water bubbler.  That way if a student needs to get a drink, it’s all right there in that one classroom rather than having to send a student alone out in the hallway to go to a water bubbler, and wondering when they are going to come back and things like that.  So it’s a lot more controlled.   It’s an elementary school that’s meant to be an elementary school and that’s not something we’ve had built in Gardner here in a hundred years.

Price Tag of New Gardner Elementary School

Poegel: Now the school carries obviously a hefty price tag, but not all of the cost will be born by Gardner taxpayers, is that correct?

Nicholson: That is correct.  The Commonwealth, through the Massachusetts School Building Authority does reimburse cities and towns that are building schools based off of demographic information and for Gardner they’re reimbursing us the full 80 percent that we could receive for eligible costs.  And I think that’s a key word to put there, that it’s 80 percent of eligible cost.  And those eligible costs are things that the School Building Authority has decided are required to have a quality education in a school.  Classroom supplies, a bookshelf, things like that, those are considered eligible costs.  An auditorium is not considered an eligible cost because there are still ways that you can have an adequate learning environment that does not include an auditorium.  So that’s why you’ve noticed that across the state, and in our Middle School, and we have one in the Elementary School where you have a cafetorium situation where the state considers it a cafeteria because you can roll the tables out and put out a bunch of folding chairs.  Because a cafeteria is a required space per the MSBA, so  you can kinda get away with adding that space there.  But that’s why we haven’t seen new schools lately that have a large auditorium like we have at Gardner High School.  It’s because that’s not something the state reimburses for and you have to cover the full cost on your own. 

Poegel:  So breaking that down, Mayor, how much is it gonna cost the taxpayers over what period of time does that get paid, in other words, what impact does it have annually on the actual amount that gets charged to the taxpayers?

Nicholson:  The average taxpayer should not see a substantial increase on their bill.  The actual cost that’s going to be born by the taxpayers of the 90 million dollars that the school is gonna cost , is probably close to, I’m gonna say, about a hundred thousand.  But while I’m saying the average taxpayer shouldn’t notice a bump one way or another in their tax bill – ( I’m gonna get you a number in an email Werner, don’t want to make a misstatement, ) is that we waited for the Middle School to be paid off.  So we built the Middle School in 1997 and we waited for that note to be fully paid off and that’s when we put the new school in, and it’s at an equivalent amount over the next 30 years, it’s a 30 year note.  So we’re actually paying the same amount we had been paying for the Middle School every year since 1996, since we started construction on the Middle School.

Poegel:  So is it somewhat like, we already have in our budget the price of a car and we just got a new car?

Nicholson.  That’s 100 percent it. 

Poegel:  Alright. So the tax bills which just went out….Isn’t there some other  reason why they might seem high right now which has absolutely nothing to do with the new school?

Nicholson: Absolutely.  You’ve been paying for the new school now for the past 3 years. Because of the way MSBA works, we’ve been paying the contractor, the architects, the designer, all of that.  So the new school has already been included in tax bills for the past 3 years.  The reason why the first quarter and the second quarter, what we call preliminary tax bills are high right now is because there’s just a disconnect in the state’s laws for how cities and towns can issue tax bills.  It’s something that every city and town across Massachusetts that does quarterly tax billing, and last we checked was two years ago, and that was 210 municipalities out of 351 that did quarterly tax billing, are seeing this right now. What it is, proposition 2 ½ which was voted in by the voters in an election by ballot initiative, states the valuation for the purpose of taxation has to be on a two year look back.  ….So if you’re looking at fiscal year 2023, the look back is to calendar 2021.  In calendar 2021, the real estate market as someone who’s been actively looking for a house since 2020, houses were staying on the market for days, if not hours.  The average going price in Gardner was about 80 thousand dollars over asking, whether it closed at that price or not, that’s the selling price that was accepted.  And we saw just a large spike in the real estate market which artificially inflated the market.  Interest rates were low, we saw a lot of migration from the Greater Boston area. The Executive Office of Workforce Development put out a report that said that statewide in Massachusetts, 35% of all employers in the state  have now officially told their employees that their working 100 percent remote and will not be coming back to the office in order for the company to save on overhead.  So we’re seeing a lot of people now are coming from the Greater Boston area, keeping their Boston dream jobs with their Boston pay but coming out here to Gardner to buy a house on a acre of land where you get cinder blocks for it in Boston.  So those trends all bumped up the real estate market.  So now, we’re on that look back  year where we’re there.  Valuations in Gardner have increased about 19 percent for the average home in the city.  

Poegel:  So let me ask you this question.  So  you’re in the office doing the bills, and you say, now I have to go with this higher valuation, and you say aw oh, I’m stuck, because they set the tax rate based on the lower valuation, what do I do, and the law says, you’ve gotta send out the bills anyway and you have to wait to push that tax rate down once you have that free cash number and everything’s certified in like November/December.   Is that right?

Nicholson:  Yup. That’s correct.  We are not allowed to touch the tax rate until December because new growth and free cash both have to be certified first.

Can’t swing the entire bill? The City will work with you

Poegel:  So what happens to somebody if they have a financial inability to pay the higher bills right now.  Will the city work with the taxpayer?

Nicholson:  Oh yea, we do payment plans all the time for taxpayers who are having issues.  Particularly with these first two quarters where we are seeing such a large increase across the City.  And again, it’s across the state.  The first thing you should do is contact the treasurer/collector’s office.  We’re willing to sit and talk with people, and believe me, we get a lot of people who come in kicking and screaming, without knowing the full picture of what’s going on, or that’s that even an option there.  So if you have issues, give us a call and we’ll see what we can do.

Poegel: All right, so basically, if my bill’s supposed to be a hundred bucks.  We know it’s obviously going to more than a hundred bucks, but if my bill’s a hundred bucks, it’s still going to be a hundred bucks.

Nicholson:  It is.  If you pay a hundred dollars by the end of the fiscal year, you’re gonna pay a hundred dollars.  ….You still pay that hundred dollars in the end. 

Poegel:  So good luck with all the calls on that one.

Nicholson:  Yeah.  The updated valuations are going to be uploaded soon on the City’s website….If anyone’s interested in finding out what their valuation is, you can find that online around September…or you can call the Assessor’s office now and she call certainly tell you what the new assessment is on your house and it’s appraised value.

Gardner Public Schools Success Stories

Poegel:  All right. . So Mayor Nicholson, as Chairman of the Gardner School Committee, the Mayor of Gardner is informed about most aspects of the school system.  You go to meetings, you chair the meetings, you hear all the reports, you see all the stuff. Now, when people research Gardner schools online, they often get old data.    Can you share some success stories that you know about?

Multiple Examples of Excellence

Nicholson:  Absolutely.  Our literacy rate in terms of our kindergarteners and first graders is through the roof.  It’s something that happened really as we partnered with the United Way of North Central Massachusetts with a program called Footsteps to Brilliance.  And it’s something that when we went 100 percent one on one with every student in the school having a device, in our lower school.  What we do is we have software now that is basically, for lack of a better term, a kid kindle. It allows students to pull up different books on their tablets and they read through them, and it actually tabulates the number of words that students read.  And we can actually trace that with data to what we’re doing in the classroom, to see is the student just opening up the app and just leaving it open, or is the student actually being engaged and scrolling through this book.  There’s questions on every page so we can see if the student is just flipping through for the sake of flipping through, or are they actually like, answering the material and engaged what’s in them…..We do have a large early literacy program that we have here. 

Early College Program

Our early college program is one of the models that the state is now following.  We’re already in talks with the Department of Education to see how other schools can model what we’re doing here.  We’re partners with Mount Wachusett Community College, not just on the Gateway and Pathway Programs that we have here that are great in and of themselves, but students, who are just general Gardner High students can go to the Mount and take college credits there.  We had a student last year go to Fitchburg State University as a second semester Junior going for her Batchelor’s Degree, because of the amount of college credit that she received while at Gardner High School, her AP Class, her early college class. 

Innovative Pathways

And  you look at the other side, of the academics that we have here where we’re adding the new innovative pathways.  What I like to tell people is, if you’re a trade school, it’s called a trade.  If you’re a traditional school, it’s called an innovative pathway.  Mainly because there’s a state law that says if a traditional school is in a vocational school’s school district catchment area like Gardner is with Monty Tech,  we can not legally copy a trade that Monty Tech offers at Monty Tech, so they changed the name.  That’s one of those loopholes I’ve noticed that the state does every now and then, forbid something somewhere and changes the name, and basically it mirrors the program.  So we have a manufacturing program at Gardner High – there’s different levels for it depending on what grade you are from 8th grade to 12th grade.  You can earn a full OSHA certification.  You can earn different other preliminary certifications,  so that when you graduate, if you aren’t a student who is just meant to go to college, and not everyone is meant to be a college-based student, you have some of those skills under your belt. And it’s not just manufacturing.  We have IT. We have Medical, Pre-Nursing, and Medical Care.  We have, I think there’s 7 different innovative pathways that we offer at Gardner High School so that students get that real world experience while in a classroom setting so that we can make it so these students become more marketable after they graduate and be more successful in their post academic careers. 

Curricula Over and Above

Poegel: Now obviously you have to start somewhere, and you have to start with kindergarten right. And I notice that on the Gardner website, there were curricula for every single grade and they were very specific. 

Nicholson: Yeah, that’s something that we’re required to do by State Law, adopt the curricula by School Committee vote every year.  Gardner’s one of the few districts that actually puts that fully online.

Poegel:  Well, I notice it seems to go above and beyond what is required.

Nicholson: We do that. There’s doing the minimum and then there’s actually putting in the work, and that’s one thing that I’m very happy with the teachers in Gardner, the administration of Gardner Public Schools, they put in the work to make sure they’re investing in their students.  They actually are investing in their students, not just doing the minimum that they can do.

School Choice

Poegel:  So let’s say someone is going to Templeton right now, or going to Ashburnham, or Winchendon, and let’s say they want to take advantage of going to school in Gardner.  Can they do that?

Nicholson:  Through a School Choice program you can. How School Choice works statewide is we set quotas for each grade.  If we don’t fill that with a student from Gardner, we can fill that in with a student from another community.  The catch is, if we allow students to come in, we have to allow students to go out.  So there are ways that you can School Choice in.  There are deadlines associated, so if you have any questions on that, Dr. Kathy Goguen at the Superintendent’s office oversees that program.

Gardner Public School Safety

Poegel:  Let’s talk about School Safety for a moment.  The School Resource Office and DARE instructor was praised by pretty much everybody.  What is Gardner doing about School Safety so that people will feel comfortable in today’s environment?

Nicholson:  I think School Safety for us is something we’ve constantly thought about here. It’s not something you ever want to have to worry about.  You make sure you have a system that you don’t worry about.  In the new school, there’s actually going to be these, for lack of a better term, large garage door type devices that can close off the different hallways.  So even if it’s just, we have a basketball game at night at the Elementary School, right now if you go, we’ll use Waterford Street School as an example.  If you get into Waterford Street School to use the gym, you technically have access to the full building.  What’s going to happen at the new Elementary School, is that after hours these garage door units will close off those sections of the hallway so that if there is an evening event in that school, you only have access to where that evening event is occurring, we don’t have any concerns about people getting into other areas of the classroom.   But those are remote operated during anytime of the day too, if we need to lower them, they’re there.  We do have cameras on every building, and every door of every building, and you do have to buzz in, the doors are locked.  We don’t keep the doors unlocked at Gardner Public Schools.  So we do have a system in place to monitor who’s able to have entrance to the building, where they’re able to go in the building, we have cameras, it’s something that we want to continue to keep our students safe because that’s never a situation you want to deal with.

Publisher’s note: We will have more of the Mayor’s interview transcribed as time permits in the next few days. In the meantime, you are welcome to click Play above and listen to the interview in its entirety.

Various Topics

We spoke to Mayor Nicholson about success stories regarding the Gardner School system and he spoke about how well Gardner MA students are doing. We asked Mayor Nicholson about the Gardner Food Festival “With 23 expected trucks, how will you choose from all the different selections?” Apparently, the Mayor has a method, eat a little bit every half hour. We spoke to Mayor Nicholson about the Gardner Police Department and its search for a new Chief – apparently as of the morning of July 6, 2022 8 or 9 applications have already been received from both internal and external applicants. The City of Gardner may apply for a low power FM license should an FCC window open, making it possible – the transmitter would be used in the event of emergency.

City Projects

During the next part of our interview, we spoke at length with Mayor Nicholson about Gardner’s Urban Renewal Plan. Nicholson feels the City is a little behind due primarily to Covid, but is fast catching up with more than 36 active projects right now in the City. The Mayor is passionate about his love for Gardner and wants to buy a house in the City soon, but like many others has been outbid. Turns out the Mayor is very careful with his money. We asked him if that’s one of the reasons why the Chair City got a recent perfect audit, because he’s as careful with the City’s money as he is with his own. He was humble about it and told us he hadn’t made that connection. Here is the complete 25 year Urban Renewal Plan which began in 2011.

Paving Explained

The Mayor explained that the City has about 100 miles of roads and can afford to pave about 3 miles per year at the current cost of $1 million per mile. Therefore, paving projects must be prioritized. Currently the $600,000 the state provides towards paving covers about a half a mile per year. Mayor Nicholson said the City would like to pave more. It’s a question of funding.