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Lanesborough Selectmen, School Officials Still At Odds Over Building Project

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — Just a week before the vote, the Board of Selectmen and school officials continued to be at odds when it comes to the proposed high school building project.
 
The Mount Greylock Regional School project will go to the ballot in Lanesborough on Tuesday, March 15. Voters will be asked to approve a debt exclusion for the $64.8 million project, with Lanesborough's share being estimated in the $11 million range. The Massachusetts School Building Authority is picking up the majority of the cost — some $33 million — with the two towns splitting the rest based on a calculation currently at a 2 to 1 ratio. The bonding is expected to be somewhere in the 30-year range.
 
Proponents and opponents of the project have been going head to head for some time in Lanesborough. Those who oppose the project say Williamstown should pay more, that a regional task force is looking at consolidations, and that New Ashford and Hancock — which tuition students to the school — should be responsible. Opponents believe that if the project is voted down, then a new one could be crafted in a few months that is less expensive and addresses some of those concerns.
 
Mount Greylock School Committee Chairwoman Carrie Greene took aim at some of those issues on Monday, when she addressed the Board of Selectmen.
 
"I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the consequences of a no vote," Greene said.
 
If the project is voted down, the School Committee will return to the town in May asking for another vote and "it will be the same project for the same price tag. There will be no revisions to the regional agreement. There will be no more money from Williamstown. There will be no more money from Williams College."
 
"If people are voting no in hopes to get a better deal in May, that's not going to happen," Greene said.
 
One ongoing theme for opponents is the concept that Williamstown is reaping a benefit from Williams College that should be passed onto Lanesborough. They say the regional agreement should be amended to take into account the value of non-profits, which would boost the overall value of Williamstown, thus having that town take on more of the capital burden. Williamstown is already expected to take on about a two-thirds of the cost.
 
Greene noted that a change to the agreement was made just recently to move to five-year rolling enrollment and equalized property value averages — a move that benefits Lanesborough — but there is no appetite to go any further. An amendment for the agreement would have to be approved by both towns and Williamstown will unlikely to approve such a consideration because the non-profits do not contribute to the town's coffers. Further, the nonprofits raise property values in Williamstown, which is calculated in the regional agreement so Lanesborough is in one way already paying less because of them.
 
In the most recent change, Williamstown officials had sought only to create a limit to how low Lanesborough's share would go but ultimately, the School Committee dropped it. Lanesborough wanted the nonprofits included but the School Committee dropped that, too. Only the five-year rolling average was approved.
 
"That's not on the table. Tuition and choice is not on the table," Greene said.
 
Critics of the project say the school is being built to accommodate students from outside of the two towns. More than 100 of the 535 students projected for the school come from other towns through school choice or tuition. There are some in Lanesborough who are pushing to end the practice of school choice, saying the school could be built smaller without those additional students.
 
But elected school officials have all said the practices are more beneficial because the income outweighs the expenses incurred from the additional students. Hancock and New Ashford are small enough that the towns are not lawfully required to be part of a school district and can tuition anywhere. Lanesborough needs to be part of a district. 
 
Mount Greylock officials believe the 535 enrollment number, a number mostly dictated by the MSBA process, is "solid." Two separate studies have shown Williamstown and Lanesborough's school-age population will remain mostly stable over the next few decades.
 
"Declining enrollment is not a reason to vote against this project," Greene said.
 
The Berkshire County Educational Task Force is a group of school officials from all over the county who meet regularly to look at ways to share services. Opponents of the project advocate for waiting for that group to come up with recommendations they believe will lead to a consolidation of schools in Berkshire County. That, however, has been refuted publicly by the chairman of that committee.
 
"That is not the goal of the task force to tell districts to stop in their tracks," Greene said.
 
Despite those reasons being cited on handouts and lawn signs, the issue for Board of Selectmen Chairman John Goerlach is simply the cost.
 
"If we could afford this project, I'd have no problem tearing this building down. But, we can't afford this project," Goerlach said.
 
Town Manager Paul Sieloff said early on in the process he asked school officials to come up with a project in the mid-$40 million range, which has been done at other schools in the state. A 2006 estimate had a school project penned at $49 million — but that was just a ballpark figure. 
 
"The board is concerned about the high cost of this project," Sieloff said. "We recognize something needs to be done up there but the concern of the board is the cost of the project."
 
The School Building Committee has spent years working on this project and Greene says this is the best deal. The committee wrote up an educational plan, which Greene said reflects what the school had already been doing, and the building was designed to fit that. 
 
"It is a lot of money, I don't disagree. But, I think it is a fair price," Greene said.
 
The alternate to the project at this point would be to bring the building up to code piecemeal. Greene estimates that it will cost at much as $58 million to do so and that would be without state support.
 
"If we are going to spend tens of millions of dollars bringing this building up to code, we're still not going to have an educationally appropriate, safe, energy efficient building," Greene said. "We're going to have the same building we are going to have now, which the MSBA won't participate in."
 
To fix the building would cost the town of Lanesborough somewhere in the $18 million range, she said. She asked the Selectmen "is it worth fixing?" 
 
The largest of the repairs would be to become ADA compliant, which is triggered once 30 percent of the assessed value is put into renovations. But Goerlach doesn't think it will all have to be done at once and believes some of the items won't ever have to be done. 
 
Selectman Robert Ericson used to chair the Building Committee and is a former engineer. He is the one board member in favor of the project. He said the building will certainly need a new roof because that is "designed poorly in the first place" and the heating system is due for a full replacement. He added that the $1 million estimate for a fire suppression system — the school currently doesn't have sprinklers — is too low. He looked into it as he chaired the Building Committee in rebuilding the locker rooms after the ceiling collapsed.
 
Right now, there is no plan of how the towns will move forward with the building if the project is voted down on Tuesday. 

Tags: MGRHS school project,   

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