Mount Greylock Building Committee Chairman Mark Schiek reads the warrant article at Lanesborough's annual town meeting.
LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — Hundreds of residents approved Mount Greylock Regional School's building project feasibility study by a nearly unanimous margin at Tuesday's annual town meeting.
The question of whether the two-town district can borrow up to $850,000 for the study through the Massachusetts School Building Authority has been settled in both member towns. Williamstown approved the study by an overwhelming margin last month.
The question generated about a half hour of debate in the three and a half hour Lanesborough meeting, but only a few hands were raised in opposition when it went to a vote.
"I think I was surprised by the margin, as much as anything," Mount Greylock Building Committee Chairman and Lanesborough resident Mark Schiek said. "It shows people are really concerned that something needs to be done at the school."
Tuesday's meeting was attended by 174 voters from a checklist of 2,095.
The meeting approved all of the spending articles on the warrant. An amendment proposed from the floor to cut $50,000 from the Lanesborough Elementary School budget was soundly defeated.
The most anticipated vote of the night was Article 21 on the 33-article ballot, the Mount Greylock feasibility study question. The issue drew a large number of voters who departed as soon as it was decided, and as was the case in Williamstown in May, volunteer supporters of the school building project offered babysitting services for parents who wanted to attend the meeting.
It was a late school night for their youngsters.
Schiek rose to move the question at 9:03 p.m., a little more than two hours into the meeting.
He explained that although the total bond amount was for $850,000, the cost to Lanesborough would be $98,000 spread over a period of years after reimbursement from the MSBA, a contribution from the Mount Greylock School District itself and a split with Williamstown.
Although the vote ultimately was a landslide in favor of the study, the question faced vehement opposition from the floor of the meeting.
Finance Committee member Ronald Tinkham, who earlier had failed in his bid to trim the elementary school budget, was the first to rise in opposition to the feasibility study.
"We've studied the building," he said. "We know the problems. ... We could go a long way to fixing the problems at the school with $850,000."
Tinkham went on to cite an assessment by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission that found the county has too many high schools already, implying that the Mount Greylock district may be looking to renovate or rebuild at a time when the school itself is destined to be mothballed.
Tinkham was in the minority on the Finance Committee, which voted to recommend approving the article. The Board of Selectmen took no position on the question, and it was pressed from the floor to explain its reasoning.
Board of Selectmen Chairman John Goerlach said he had mixed feelings about the study, and the board decided the question was best left to the voters. Selectman Robert Ericson, who also serves on the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee, said he has concerns about the study but personally was for it because, "without the MSBA-supported feasibility study, we will go nowhere with this."
Seectman Henry Sayers complained that the "price tag" for the study kept changing -- recently from $93,000 to $98,000.
In fact, earlier estimates of the cost to the Town of Lanesborough did peg the maximum cost at about $93,000. That number was based on the MSBA reimbursement rate from the recent locker room/boiler project at the high school. Since that $93,000 figure was floated, MSBA has told the district it would be reimbursed at a slightly lower rate (53 percent vs. 55 percent) for the current project.
Mount Greylock School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Greene, a resident of Williamstown who was allowed to address the meeting, told voters that no one knows for sure what the study will cost but the committee brought a high-end estimate to the towns.
"We hope $850,000 is too high," she said. "We had to estimate high so we wouldn't go over. There's a good chance it will come in under that."
If the bill ends up being $98,000 to the town, school officials estimate it would cost the average homeowner in Lanesborough about $15 a year for three years. In answer to a question from the floor, Schiek clarified that the MSBA would reimburse the district for the study even if the member towns ultimately decide not to move forward with either a repair, renovation or replacement of the aging junior-senior high school.
Resident Ray Jones told the meeting that while education is important, so are other priorities for the town, including making sure the residents are not overly burdened with taxes. Jones also repeated his complaint that towns that tuition their students into Mount Greylock are getting a "bargain" because the tuition rate is lower than the cost per pupil of an education at the school.
Greene reminded the voters that the MG School Committee this spring successfully negotiated new tuition rates with the towns of New Ashford and Hancock. The rate will be raised 5 percent per year for five years to bring it in line with the per-pupil cost.
Several items in the town budget came under scrutiny during the course of the meeting, but ultimately the $10 million budget was approved unchanged from the proposal put before the voters.
The most drastic change proposed was in the $2.6 million appropriation for the elementary school. Tinkham offered an amendment to reduce the appropriation by $50,000.
He complained that school employees have seen their salaries rise at a higher rate than other town employees and said the school's budget is replete with "questionable" areas that could be trimmed without hurting the quality of a Lanesborough education.
Tinkham characterized his own proposal to cut $50,000 as symbolic, to send a message to school officials.
"If the taxpayers vote this budget [as proposed], the message is clear: Continue as you are - same old, same old," he said.
"We are cutting back on all kinds of services in the community, and we need to have change at the school."
Al Terranova from the Finance Committee told the voters that his board held held numerous discussions with the Elementary School Committee and administration to trim its budget request from its original level.
"We felt this was the right number and a good number for Lanesborough Elementary School," Terranova said. "We met for hours."
Tinkham's motion to have his amendment decided by secret ballot did not receive a second. The amendment failed decisively in a voice vote.
The closest vote of the night came on Art. 22, which came immediately after an exodus of voters following the Mount Greylock feasibility study question.
Article 22 sought a change in the town's bylaws to raise the limit on bond issues that require a paper ballot. The old number was $200,000; the Selectmen sought to allow Town Meeting to make decisions on bonds up to $500,000.
Several residents questioned the move.
"It's more inclusive to leave it where it is," said Barbara Hassan, who noted that turnout for paper ballot elections is higher than for Town Meeting.
The bond issue question was the only one Moderator Robert Reilly was not able to settle by eyeballing the number of voters who raised their red voter cards.
After a careful counting by town officials, the vote was determined to be 31-27 in favor of raising the limit to $500,000.
The annual town election is scheduled for Tuesday, June 17, from noon to 7 p.m.