Committee Debates School Project Direction
The School Building Committee debated options for the school project on Wednesday night.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — School officials and the School Building Committee are hashing out an educational strategy that will be financially and politically palatable to voters.
The easiest and cheapest solution is to build or renovate one school; the more difficult, convincing skeptical taxpayers on the need to pass a debt-exclusion override to build or renovate two schools. More than a few at the meeting thought that would be an uphill battle after the recent defeat of a Proposition 2 1/2 override that would have prevented school budget cuts.
School Building Committee member Nancy Ziter, the city's business manager, summed it up: "Are we ready to fight the fight for two buildings?"
The city is looking to resolve the educational needs of 620 students, a number approved by the Massachusetts School Building Authority and based on projected enrollment, the closure of Conte Middle School and the reconfiguration of grades into K-7 and 8-12.
The project, however, has been at a low boil since parents at Sullivan School objected vociferously to the idea of shuttering the 50-year-old hillside structure in favor of renovating Conte as a new K-7 building.
Meeting on Wednesday night, school and city officials failed to come to a consensus on how to proceed despite the already busted timeframe.
"Anymore delay for the MSBA is not a good thing," said Mel Overmoyer, principal with consultant Strategic Building Solutions, who facilitated the meeting. "They are already impatient with us. We have to put to them a new time line and we have to stick with it."
The nearly century-old Conte had been off the radar until Margo Jones Architects began a review of the school district's buildings. They determined that Conte's architecture would fit the grade-clustering concept well and would be cheaper to renovate at $24 million.
Mel Overmoyer of SBS counts votes as attendees deliberated on school options.
Sullivan parents, however, objected when it became apparent Conte would replace Sullivan, resulting in moving the their children to the downtown location.
Renovating or adding on to the multitiered Sullivan is considered impractical and building a new school on the current site or by taking over nearby Kemp Park would cost around $31 million. Some of the higher cost is because of the significant grading and site preparation (which would not be covered by state reimbursement) and for moving the children off-site during construction. Relocating the building to Kemp Park would mean the loss of the ballfield there and a prominent three-story building in the very residential area.
The group did agree on two things: There was support and need for a new or renovated Greylock School and there was no support for 620-pupil school.
But they were stuck on whether to pursue a two-school solution — one that the MSBA has not clearly stated it would support — or do one school, with the goal of doing a second in the future.
Committee member Keith Bona was concerned that the city was gambling with a two-school solution that the MSBA might not reimburse and that taxpayers wouldn't support.
The anticipated cost to the city would add about $70 to the average tax bill, said the city councilor. "When I hear that $70, I know that's just one part of what people are going to get hit with."
Doing one school, on the other hand, would not require a debt-exclusion vote if it did not raise taxes above the levy limit. The city is coming to the end of its debt obligations for the construction at Drury High School and Brayton Elementary, neither of which required votes.
"If we do one school, say $6 million to $8 million, with the debt falling off Drury and Brayton while this project is being completed, that bond is absorbed into the budget," said Mayor Richard Alcombright. "The council approves it."
If the city went with one school project, likely Greylock, it could do some repairs at Sullivan in the meantime, said the mayor.
Building Inspector William Meranti, a member of the School Building Committee, warned that any significant repairs would trigger the Americans With Disabilities Act and force the city to spend far more in making the building handicapped accessible.
Building Committee members agreed to return the second week in August to allow some of its newest members to absorb the information provided at Wednesday's meeting.
"We have to get off this fence and say we want something," said committee member Ronald Superneau, who served for more than three decades on the School Committee. "If you're really concerned about something here, bite the bullet."