NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The future of the elementary schools was the main topic of Wednesday morning's debate between the three candidates for mayor on WNAW 1230-AM radio.
Incumbent Richard Alcombright and challengers Ronald Boucher and Robert Martelle agreed that jobs, growth and taxes were the major issues facing the city but the schools — and the failed Proposition 2 1/2 override — dominated the hourlong conversation.
Incumbent Richard Alcombright, left, and Ronald Boucher, City Council president, expressed their differences at Wednesday morning's debate in the WNAW studios.
While the tone and remarks remained cordial both on and off the air, the mayor and the City Council president strongly disagreed on the school project — and Boucher's stand on it.
Alcombright, who as mayor also is chairman of the School Committee, reiterated his support for a two-school option that would see a new Greylock School built and Conte Middle School renovated into K-8 to replace Sullivan School.
Boucher, who attended the last School Building Committee, said he'd rather see repairs to Sullivan and Greylock to get them through the next 10 years until the economy improved.
"I truly believe in my heart, we couldn't get a $1.2 million override passed for a budget, I can't think we're going to get a $6-$8 million override passed for a school," said Boucher.
Alcombright, however, said Boucher "was more than adamant of your support of a two-school solution at that time," including saying he'd work within the community to help a debt exclusion pass.
But Boucher said it wasn't the case. While he agreed the committee should "go with the gusto" and submit a two-school project to the state, he didn't think the Massachusetts School Building Authority would approve it anyway.
"I didn't feel a debt exclusion override would pass," he said. "And I would not go out and market people to vote for a debt exclusion when I was not in favor of having a 2 1/2 override."
(This reporter who attended that meeting does not recall Boucher's stance being particularly "adamant" in either direction.)
Martelle stuck to his mantra of low taxes through most of the hour. "I would like a new school, but if we can't afford a new school we can't afford it," he said.
Robert Martelle stuck to his theme of no more taxes. The Berkshire Anodizing employee told us he was running to make sure that issue wasn't forgotten.
Boucher also took issue with an email sent from the mayor's office to the SBA claiming "solid unity behind this proposed direction" that included a majority of councilors because the council had not voted. Alcombright said he had sent the letter as head of the School Building Committee based on a unanimous School Committee vote and councilors who were at the building committee's vote. A resolution is expected to go before the council this month.
Alcombright said despite the Proposition 2 1/2 defeat, he felt the city would support the school project.
"We were trying to do what was in the best interest of the city ... my heart tells me that this city would rally around a debt exclusion override for the schools, for the kids," he said.
"I don't who you're talking to mayor, but the people I talk to are totally against the debt exclusion override," responded Boucher. "I'm not opposed to a new school as long as we can build it within our existing budget without going out to debt exclusion."
He suggested the schools weren't overcrowded and the city could wait until the debt from the renovations at Brayton and Drury fell off the books in a few years. Alcombright countered that there are two fourth-grade classes now at Brayton with 27 pupils each; half are on individual education plans. The problem isn't classrooms but space for programs and special education, he said.
Alcombright also said it would be several years anyway before the school project debt was incurred.
"My thought is strike while the iron is hot," he said. "As soon as you start to patch these buildings up you trigger all kinds of ADA requirements, which would trigger accessibility issues ... so what you think may be a couple hundred thousand dollars for a boiler or $400,000 for windows could turn into millions in renovations."
Both schools predate the Americans with Disabilities Act, but could be forced to come into compliance the federal law depending on the scope of any repairs or renovations.
The mayor also defended his presentations on the failed Prop 2 1/2 that painted a devastating picture of what could happen to the schools saying "these are very scary times."
"I think we made a great compromise," he said in making further cuts and dipping into the city's depleted reserves, which he hadn't wanted to do. He added that his administration had winnowed a $3.2 million structural deficit down to $420,000 over the past year.
"I've kind of dismayed at the idea that people think because I didn't make the cuts we talked about, it's almost like I'm a failure for trying to be successful," said Alcombright. "We made cuts that had to happen but were as mild as can be."
Boucher said more cuts should have been made before the voters. "Duty and the job of government is to make the cuts and after you've done the best job possible of cuts, then go to the public and say we've done our job, we need your help."
Martelle said, "Mayor Barrett left Mr. Alcombright a big hole, he's got to try to dig out of, but like I said, raising taxes just makes the hole bigger."
Property taxes were major concern of those signing his nomination papers, he said. "I have to work a month and a half right now to pay my property taxes."
Voters will decide on Tuesday, Sept. 27, which two candidates will move to the general election in November.
The forum was sponsored by the Berkshire News Network (WNAW & WUPE radio) and iBerkshires.com. The moderator was Larry Kratka, WUPE news director; questions were asked by Kratka, iBerkshires Editor Tammy Daniels and North Adams Transcript Senior Reporter Jennifer Huberdeau.
Edited with clarification, added material at 10:19 a.m.