The City Council on Tuesday questioned the Conte project team on costs and overcrowding.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Two city councilors went out of their way on Tuesday night to remind the mayor their board would determine the fate of the Conte School project.
The $30 million renovation of the former high school is expected to take two years and cost the city $6.5 million. The Massachusetts School Building Authority, which is picking up the maximum 80 percent of eligible cost, approved the scope of the project earlier this month. On Tuesday, the owner's project manager and architects made a presentation to the council on the progress to date at the request of Mayor Richard Alcombright.
Both Councilors John Barrett III and Jennifer Breen stressed the council's need to be informed of the details of the project before considering approval of a bond this January to fund it.
"A lot of people were concerned about how this was done," said Breen, who called the council an elected check-and-balance to the School Building Committee appointed by the mayor. "We need to question you about it."
Alcombright said the process had been very open and transparent.
"The committee is diverse, very representative of our community and they made very difficult decisions," said the mayor, despite some significant pushback. He suggested that the questions being asked by the councilors had been vetted over the past 18 months by the committee.
"I think there are a lot of questions that have to be answered," said Barrett, who described some of the presentation as embellishment. "My recommendation to this council would be let the voters decide."
Barrett pressed Mel Overmoyer of Strategic Building Solutions, the owner's project manager, on statements about "significant overcrowding" in the schools, the positive impact of a renovated historic building on the downtown area and what the Historical Commission might think about other uses for the school.
Overmoyer said he didn't have the numbers offhand for school or classrooms sizes, referring the question to the superintendent. He also seemed puzzled later by Barrett's references to Sprague Electric sitting vacant for years after Overmoyer said a renovated Conte was better than a deteriorating one. "I don't know about that," he said.
The line of questioning over classroom size caused the mayor to interject that the superintendent would be better informed but Barrett continued that he wanted to ask Overmoyer. "I'm trying to ask questions that weren't answered," he said.
Council President Michael Bloom shut down what was becoming an argument and asked Superintendent James Montepare to answer. Montepare said there was overcrowding, primarily because of space issues related to special education programs, but the average classroom size was 18, although some grades had up to 26.
"I'm going on the basis of statement that were made by you," Barrett said. "I'm trying to say if there's overcrowding, there are less kids there today than there were 15 years ago.
"When I left the classroom in 1984, the average class size was 1 to 30."
Montepare said the needs of the population had changed and while earlier projections had been for a decrease in enrollment, the school system still had about 1,600 children. Also pushing the overcrowding was the closure of Conte Middle School three years ago by Barrett, as mayor, who prompted the initial application to the MSBA in the first place.
While none of the school system's statements of interest to the MSBA cite "severe overcrowding" from enrollment as a primary reason for a new school (poor structure, obsolete heating and lack of program space and facilities are prime), the SOIs from 2008 and later specifically speak to the overcrowding problems expected from the closure of Conte. According to the SOIs submitted for review, the schools have been at or above recommended occupation levels.
Councilor Lisa Blackmer raised her concerns over speeding traffic and the failure to keep sidewalks clean of snow as dangers to children walking to school. The mayor said the city was committed to keeping at least one side of major corridors clear of snow and that there have been discussions of busing children from East Main Street.
Councilors Nancy Bullett and Keith Bona, a member of the building committee, expressed support for the project.
"I was impressed at the plans I've seen at the meetings," said Bullett.
On questions of costs, Overmoyer said the process was well vetted.
"This is a very regimented process; it goes through much scrutiny and much resolve to get to the end," he said, including reviews and approvals at several steps by the MSBA and vetting by independent estimators.
Barrett said he had heard the MSBA had questioned the costs. "Absolutely," replied Overmoyer. "That's the vetting, so to speak, that took place."
The cost of renovating the school is estimated at about $280 a square foot compared to $350 for a new one, he said. The project also had built-in contingency funds for both the city's side and the MSBA's side in case of overruns, at a higher-than-normal rate of 10 percent.
Architect Margo Jones said she had a record of bringing projects in under budget, including cutting a $1 million off the Williamstown Elementary School.
"We're very excited about renewing this school for another 100 years of use," she said. "We actually hope it will be occupied, finished in 2015, which will mark its centenary."
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