School Project Goes Back to Drawing Board
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city's going to "take a step back" from the school building project.
Mayor Richard Alcombright said a press conference regarding the project will be held Friday at noon to explain the whys and wherefores.
The school building committee and its designers have come under withering fire from parents and neighbors of Sullivan School on Kemp Avenue when it became apparent it would likely be sacrificed for the renovation of Conte Middle School.
During a three-hour meeting last Thursday, parents hurled charges that the committee and designers hadn't spent enough time on finding ways to renovate the school. They oppose sending youngsters downtown to Conte, which had operated as a high school and middle school for nearly 100 years, but never as an elementary school.
The designers and school officials, including faculty, say the hillside school is problematic because of its multiple levels and limited expansion options because of the steep grade.
In an email announcing the press conference, Alcombright said the decision was being made in consultation with Superintendent of Schools James Montepare.
"This time will allow the design team to more fully explore Sullivan School options and will allow us to meet on any new proposals," he wrote. "Upon receipt of new design options, we will re-engage the School Building Committee, School Committee and City Council through public process as well as convene additional public sessions with the result being more significant and consistent support."
The mayor said he and the superintendent would be available for questions on Friday.
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Parents, Neighbors Argue for Sullivan Option
Parents and residents raise their hands to ask questions about the school building project at Sullivan Elementary School.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Parents and neighbors of Sullivan Elementary School expressed their displeasure for nearly three hours on Thursday night at the idea of closing the school in favor of resurrecting Conte School.
"This is a safe neighborhood and a great place to have a school," said one man. "Why are we going to invest in a school that's falling apart? ... I would rather have a new school rather than have a middle school in the middle of town."
More than 60 parents and community members, the largest crowd so far, sat at lunch tables in the stuffy Sullivan cafeteria to hear the latest presentation on options to deal with the closure of the middle school, which happened two years ago.
The architects flipped through the school buildings noting the pros — strong neighborhoods, good bones — and the cons — the lack of energy efficiency and program space, and outdated design. In the mix are Greylock and Sullivan elementary schools and Conte for five options for renovation and rebuilding to address the educational needs of 620 students.
Superintendent James Montepare, Mayor Richard Alcombright and Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco answer questions from citizens.
Renovating the century-old Conte in the downtown has emerged as the preferred option over Sullivan's problematic configuration of levels and tight space on the side of a hill.
While there has been little debate over renovating or building new at the Greylock site, the possibility of closing the 45-year-old Sullivan on quiet Kemp Avenue and sending the kindergarten through Grade 7 pupils to Conte has alarmed some.
Parents raised concerns over traffic, safety and small children walking to the downtown location. "I don't want my daughter walking down Eagle Street," said one. Another mother spoke of seeing suspicious characters watching the middle school children exit Conte when it was open.
Superintendent James Montepare said school officials were discussing the issue of children walking downtown, which has been raised as earlier sessions, but disputed the idea of people "lurking" about the school.
"There was always a police officer in the school and a police officer on the corner in a cruiser waiting for the kids to [get out]," said Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco, who conceded there had been problems with the middle school children.
"They were old enough to be trucking around by themselves," he said. "I do not see that problem when you're talking about grammar school children."
But the commissioner got into a bit of a shouting match with City Councilor Lisa Blackmer, who pointed out that two sexual assaults on children had occurred near Conte and at the library across the street.
"The one thing I keep hearing about is public safety," said Blackmer. "And the fact that nobody considered the traffic astounds me."
Morocco retorted that the downtown "is as safe as it ever was ... You show me the figures that show me it's not safe."
Blackmer said Sullivan should have more represention on the school building committee.
"I don't think anybody is really listening to their concerns," she said. "I have real apprehension about kids this age being in the downtown."
The school building committee and some city officials were pleased to see Conte as one of the options, but Sullivan supporters accused school officials of pushing the renovation of the former high school over Sullivan.
"It feels like the powers that be prefer Conte," said Angelica Parades, who said she'd rather see her son go to the Berkshire Arts and Technology Public Charter School — on busy Commercial Street in Adams — than go to Conte.
Former Mayor John Barrett III weighed in, suggesting holding off on the project and ensuring the preservation of the neighborhood schools.
"I don't think we should kick the can down the road for the next generation," he said, urging the School Committee to have an "open and transparent vote" on their preferred option. "I think that the Conte School can be used for a better purpose."
Mayor Richard Alcombright said the question was not can we afford it, but "can we afford not to do it?" The MSBA's 80 percent reimbursement may not be there in the future and constrution costs are likely to rise, he said.
John Bedard, a frequent and outspoken critic of the plan, warned that voters won't forget if Sullivan closed.
"If you do push this agenda through you know it will be against the will of the people and it will show in the next election," said Bedard. "I probably have 400 signatures on a petition to save this school ... I'll drive this down to Boston to the MSBA to prove that we don't want this."
Montepare countered that other than Bedard and Thursday's audience, he had received no calls or emails against the Conte option.
"I'm not the one who's pushing Conte; all the questions that have been coming my way have been about Conte," said Montepare. "I'm happy to have two neighborhood schools anyplace."
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Conte School Option Prompts Protest
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A presentation by Margo Jones Architects and Strategic Building Solutions on the proposed school building project to the City Council on Tuesday veered little from recent ones to the public and School Committee, and many of the questions covered similar ground.
City councilors and residents quizzed representatives on the costs, efficiency and process. The four options presented stem from a $680,000 feasibility study approved in 2008 that was required for any project approval and reimbursement by the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
The city is hoping the MSBA will allow a two-school project to fulfill the state's charge of finding educational solutions to 620 students. Of those options, the preferred one is the construction of a new Greylock School and the renovation of Conte Middle School, both to serve kindergarten through Grade 7.
But the proposed resurrection of the old Drury High School as an elementary school hasn't been welcomed by everyone.
"A fifth option does exist," said John Bedard of Meadow Street. "The same exact solution of the Greylock School by putting a new school at the Sullivan site."
Bedard said the West End has gotten new fields and lighting, and now would get a new school so its property values would go up. But the Kemp Avenue area would lose its neighborhood school and see its the property values go down. And he's argued that downtown Conte isn't safe or appropriate for younger children.
"I see this feasibility study as a last-ditch effort to save that building on Main Street," he said. "... this should be about the children ... anyone who says the children would be better off downtown is either an idiot or a liar."
Councilor Keith Bona, a member of the School Building Committee, said there was no expectation the feasibility study would find a solution in Conte, which was closed as a middle school in 2008.
"Clearly, we thought Conte was off the board," said Bona. "At no point was anyone given any instructions to save Conte ... We thought it was going to be too costly."
Kristian Whitsett of Margo Jones Architects also said Conte wasn't really considered an option but the architects were surprised to find it worked well with the "clustering" configuration for teaching and also offered a way to be "green" in terms of reuse.
The Sullivan site, too, had been studied extensively, he said, in terms of additions and building a new structure but the steep terrain around the site limited location, parking, bus drop-offs and "we couldn't figure out where to put the ballfield."
The SBA will only cover site work up to 8 percent of the construction
Renovating and adding on to the current school would mean five levels that would require children and residents going up and down stairs to get from one end of the school to the other, making it difficult for the gym to be used by the community.
Diane Parsons said she was "biased" against using Conte and council President Ronald Boucher, "a fan of neighborhood schools," asked if there was an option to build a new Greylock and fix up Sullivan if the SBA rejected a two-school project.
Wittseg said they couldn't "spend a little bit" on Sullivan because it would trigger more expensive renovations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Bedard was not convinced of the argument against Sullivan and was getting signatures on a petition to keep the school open.
Mayor Richard Alcombright said another public session on the project would be held on Tuesday, April 28, at 7 p.m. at Sullivan School. "We need people, we need people to give their input."
In other business,
• The council approved a tax incentive agreement that would allow Scarafoni & Associates to purchase the North Adams Transcript building on American Legion Drive and renovate and lease it to the nonprofit Brien Center.
The agreement sets the property's assessment at $767,200, guaranteeing about $21,000 a year for the next 10 years. Abstaining from the discussion and vote were Councilors David Bond (who works for Scarafoni) and Keith Bona (who rents from Scarafoni).
• The council approved a transfer of $83,000 from the technology account to upgrade the city's aging servers, particularly for the Department of Public Safety. The transfer will leave $50,000 in the account, which is replenished through a percentage of the contract with Time Warner Cable.
Information technology officer Kathy Wall said last week that the funds would be used to replace equipment more than a decade old.
"It's hardware that's going to position us so we can handle all of the infrastructure we have now and in the future," Wall told the Finance Committee last week, including the coming installation of fiber optic in the region. "It's a smart purchase because it's going to let us look at our hardware ... it's looking at all of the infrastructure we have, all of the servers that we have. It is going to give us flexibility for technology coming down the road."
• Set a joint public hearing of the City Council and Planning Board on a proposed zoning change on Curran Highway for Monday, May 9, at 6 p.m.
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Study Offers Option to Save Conte School
The city hopes to transform Conte School into a K-7 school and revamp Colgrove Park as a community space.
Architect Margo Jones, right, talks with committee members.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The School Building Committee is supporting a plan that would save Silvio O. Conte Middle School and construct a new school in the West End.
The proposal was the second of four options provided by Strategic Building Solutions Inc. and Margo Jones Architects Inc., the project manager and the design firm, respectively, to deal with space issues after the closure of Conte in 2009.
The assumption had been that the aging former high school would be abandoned and the focus would be on the elementary schools as they absorbed Grades 6 and 7; the eighth grade was relocated to Drury High School.
"When we walked out of here, Conte didn't play a part," Carl Weber of Strategic Building told the School Building Committee on Thursday night at the school. But the feasibility study done over the past months "made us look at this building and realize it had value, a lot value."
Instead, Conte would be renovated into a kindergarten-through-seventh grade school and a new school serving the same grades would be built behind Greylock Elementary, which would be demolished. This option would put Conte back into service and create a more energy- and cost-efficent school in the West End without having to dislocate pupils during construction. Each school would be renovated or built to serve 310 pupils.
The findings are good news to city and school officials discouraged at the thought of abandoning Conte and leaving another large, empty structure on a vital corner of the downtown. Within the past few years, three churches around the school have been vacated, along with a dentist's office and a funeral home.
"I always worried about what would happen to Conte Middle School if we abandoned this building," said Superintendent of Schools James Montepare. "I like the idea as the mayor does of trying to do something with it."
The committee agreed, voting to present that option as its preferred one to the Massachusetts School Building Authority this March; its second choice was renovating Conte and renovating and putting an addition onto Greylock, which would cost about an extra $1 million to relocate the kids — possibly to Notre Dame School in Adams — during construction.
The least favorite was an oversized school to serve 620 students. The only suitable place to locate a school that size would be at the Greylock site, which committee members and school officials thought would be too large for the neighborhood and too costly to operate. "The busing would kill us," said Montepare. "We'd have to bus everybody."
The renovations will create clusters of grades around a common space with separate areas for special education programs; above are some classroom samples.
A fourth option was to renovate Sullivan School along with Greylock. However, Sullivan's location on the side of a hill would create a school with five levels, some underground, served by two elevators. The complex and problematic configuration and lack of parking lead the committee to dismiss that option.
"I want to see Conte stay," said Mayor Richard Alcombright of presenting the options to the SBA. "If Conte were eliminated, it would have to be Greylock because I don't think Sullivan is an option."
The rough estimate was $18 million to $26 million for each 310-pupil school and $42 million for the 620-pupil school. The SBA would reimburse the city a maximum of 80 percent for eligible expenses (relocation of students, for example, is not reimbursed); the cost to the city was expected to be less than $10 million, including unreimbursed costs. The designers will now begin more detailed cost estimates, including yearly operation, and plans.
Weber said the SBA had funded only one project that covered two schools to his knowledge. It had left the door open by having the city determine the best way to serve 620 students.
"But I think we have to show a compelling need and reason for that and I think we have those compelling arguments," he said. "We think that some of these options are cheaper than a 620 school and the SBA, they look at dollars maybe more than anything else and they're trying to spend taxpayer dollars wisely."
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