David Backus, a member of the Mount Greylock school building committee, explains some of the problems in the gym on Wednesday to state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, left, and MSBA director Jack McCarthy with Superintendent Rose Ellis.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The head of the Massachusetts School Building Authority says the Mount Greylock Regional High School needs to do a better job showing community support for a new building.
On Wednesday, the district was off to a good start.
Jack McCarthy was in town to tour the outdated junior-senior high school and offer feedback on the district's most recent failed attempt to get into the funding process for either renovation or replacement of the 1960s facility on Cold Spring Road.
After touring the building with Superintendent Rose Ellis and state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, McCarthy participated in a noon public meeting attended by a crowd of about 75 concerned parents and civic leaders.
"I'm impressed by how many people are here in the middle of the day on a Wednesday," McCarthy said.
That level of interest is essential to convincing the state funding agent that Williamstown and Lanesborough are ready to partner with the MSBA in funding a major overhaul or new construction.
"The more you can indicate support, the better," McCarthy said. "Obviously, the physical condition of the building is the first thing we look at. Then we ask, 'Can you pull this off?' Gail, you can speak to this: It's like a campaign."
Ellis and Mount Greylock facilities supervisor Jesse Wirtes made every effort to show McCarthy how the school’s physical condition cries out for a replacement.
"We can do a lot of Band-Aids, but at some point, the building itself is failing us," Ellis said during a 40-minute "whirlwind" tour of some of the lowlights of the sprawling, 183,000-square foot building.
The laundry list of deficiencies is familiar to anyone who has followed the School Committee's effort to raise awareness in the two towns that comprise the district: an auditorium without a fire suppression system or compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, science labs without water or natural gas, classrooms where the noise level from the HVAC system makes it difficult for teachers to conduct class, a gymnasium accessed internally by a (very cold) ramp that is neither long enough nor gradual enough for students who use wheelchairs, a library with great expanses of unusable space, mold problems, heating inefficiency, etc.
One issue the school does not have is overcrowding. In fact, it is "undercrowded," having been built to accommodate 1,200 students and currently boasting a student body of about 600.
McCarthy said that overcrowding is one of the issues that the MSBA runs into with many of the schools it funds, but the fact that Mount Greylock is not overcrowded is not an impediment to its application.
"There are eight factors we look at, and [overcrowding] is one of them," McCarthy said after the meeting. "There are seven other factors. ... Greenfield has a school that is 'undercrowded,' if you will, and that project is in the pipeline.
"[Undercrowding] is not the kiss of death, if that's what you're asking."
Throughout his tour of the school, McCarthy was attentive, inquisitive and complimentary of Wirtes and his staff for their efforts to keep the building as usable as it is.
"I must say, Jesse, what you have here, you keep very well," McCarthy said as the group moved through one of the school's dark, uninviting hallways.
Ellis kept managed to keep things light while emphasizing the many problems that Wirtes and the schools' teachers face on a daily basis.
"Mid-century charm," she deadpanned in the style of an HGTV Realtor while showing McCarthy one of the school's inadequate laboratories.
Stepping outside one of the building's 73 exterior doors — itself a major security concern — Ellis showed McCarthy what an insurmountable problem the building's original design presents.
"This is where the alleged fresh air comes in," Ellis said, pointing to one of the ground-level intake vents. "In a snow storm, there's no ventilation at all.
"The building is falling apart. I think that's clear."
In the subsequent meeting of the School Committee's building subcommittee, McCarthy indicated that he got the message loud and clear.
"There are infrastructure issues here that are obvious," he said.
But he cautioned those in attendance that his appreciation for Mount Greylock's problems should not be interpreted as support for the district's next planned statement of interest, which the School Committee plans to draft for the application period that begins in January.
"I'm out here, and I see the building needs help," he said. "But I can't make any commitment because I don't know who you're up against."
In the most recent application period, the MSBA received 280 SOIs from 190 districts throughout the commonwealth. Of those, 41 repair projects, including 16 "major projects" were invited to the next phase of the funding process, McCarthy said.
"It's a tough competition," he said.
His agency funds all school building projects throughout Massachusetts with money generated by a portion of the state sales tax. The MSBA describes itself as a "quasi-independent government authority" on its website, massschoolbuildings.org.
School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Greene, who chaired Wednesday’s meeting, led a delegation of committee members to Boston earlier this month to attend the MSBA board meeting — held six days after the Mount Greylock district learned it would not be on the agenda.
"Four of us went to the MSBA meeting on Nov. 14 to try to talk to Jack," Greene said. "We got two sentences in, and he said, 'I have to get out there. I have to see the building.'"
McCarthy said he was "moved" by the dedication of the committee members who made the trip to Boston on Nov. 14 with no guarantee they would be heard. He said they and their committees need to continue drumming up the same kind of dedication in the communities they serve.
They could do worse for a spokesperson than Debby Dane, one of several concerned citizens who spoke up during the public comment portion of the meeting.
"We've had a roof fall down, we've had air quality concerns, people are scared," Dane said. "We can't even go in the auditorium, if we held it to code. There's a movement in town to shut it down."