Mount Greylock School Project Wins in Lanesborough
The tally was 633-499 with nearly 50 percent of the town's registered voters weighing in.
"I'm feeling relieved more than anything else and extremely grateful to everyone who worked so hard to make this happen," said Mount Greylock Regional School Committee Chairwoman Carrie Greene.
"There were just so many people involved from the MSBA to the School Building Committee to all these people who worked to get out the vote."
The school project had already passed overwhelmingly in Williamstown, the regional district's other member town, two weeks ago but appeared to have a much rockier road in Lanesborough.
Opponents of the plan to renovate the 50-year-old school cited major concerns over the cost — the town would be responsible for about $10.6 million of the project and add between $353 and $393 to the average property tax bill. Plus, they said, the projections have been that Berkshire County enrollment was declining and school districts would begin looking at consolidation.
Former Selectman Robert Barton campaigned heavily against the project, distributing literature and lawn signs. The news that the project passed was a "disappointment" but he said he respects the town's "clear decision."
"I'm disappointed. I hoped we'd have the basis to negotiate changes to the agreement and to be doing something broader in North County," Barton said.
A local educational task force featuring representatives from schools districts throughout the county has been meeting to looked toward sharing services to handle the declining population. Barton, who frequently cited its work, says ultimately the county will need fewer high schools and larger school districts. The former Lanesborough School Committee member had hoped Mount Greylock would lead the way.
"A project like this makes it harder to have multi-district solutions and that's what we need," Barton said.
However, the chairman of the educational task force released a statement ahead of the vote saying the group has no intention of closing schools soon and its work shouldn't interfere with the Mount Greylock project. Barton still believes there needs to be a larger approach to education but will wait to read the task force's findings.
"I'm going to be really interested in what comes from the educational task force," Barton said.
Proponents say this project was the best deal the towns could get, with the Massachusetts School Building Authority picking up just over half the cost of the total project. Without the project, school leaders say the two towns would need to come up with some $58 million to bring the existing building up to code. The state had also affirmed building the school to accommodate an enrollment of 535 — less than the 584 expected in the 2016 -2017 school year.
"We feel it is the right project at the right time," said Cheryl Sacks, who sat on the Build Mount Greylock Committee, which campaigned for the project.
A flurry of letters and op-eds in the days leading up to the voter indicated strong support — but not how strong. On election day, supporters of the project were out in force, cheering and waving at cars and voters.
"We are continuing our positive message of yes, we want to build," Sacks said Tuesday afternoon as she stood under a tent with other supporters outside of the polls urging support.
There was some urgency to those efforts, too. The campaign against the project had picked up in the weeks leading up to the vote and a few influential town officials came out publicly against it — including two selectmen and two members of the Finance Committee. However, more town officials were publicly in favor.
Supporter Peter Tague said he felt "blindsided" by an onslaught of what he called "misinformation" coming from the opposition's camp in the weeks leading up to the vote.
"This opposition has come out in the last minute," Tague said.
Some of the campaign literature against the project and lawn signs claimed there would be a "better deal" to come if the project was voted down and that there was an option that Williams College would contribute more to offset the costs — both of which school officials vehemently denied.
"There has been a lot of misinformation coming from people who have not been participating in the process," Paula Consolini, who sits on the building committee, said. "It's insulting that people outside the process and paid little attention to it are now telling us what we should and should not do."
Consolini said school officials asked supported to "correct information when they see it" because the "waters were being muddied." And, apparently, it worked.
"It was a tough decision in Lanesborough and I respect that. I hope people made their decisions based on information and not on conjecture. I feel enough people did," Greene said.
Barton has urged multiple times to reopen the regional agreement to include nonprofit entities such as Williams College. He said including those into the equalization value would create more "equity" among the town's cost burdens. Barton says it is clear that the School Committee has no interest for that and said he won't continue to push for changes. He even suspended a petition he had started calling on Williamstown to make such a change.
Williams is already committed to contributing $200,000 per year to offset the operating budget and is creating a $5 million endowment to support additional capital projects for the new school. Further, there are partnerships between the school and the college, including a Williams Center at Mount Greylock that provides students with tutors.
Proponents worked hard to rally the vote by canvassing, talking to neighbors, and standing outside of the post office to share information, Greene said.
"We did the best job we could to get the info out," Sacks said.
"Congratulations to them. They did an excellent job getting [the vote] out," Goerlach said, as he stood in Town Hall after the results were read. "What we do now is try to keep an eye on the budgets."
Goerlach's opposition was one mostly focused on cost. He had hoped the proposed project was going to be some $20 million less than what was ultimately developed. His position is that he didn't believe the town can afford the roughly $10.6 million over the next 30 years.
"We'll be checking on things for the future and what's happening at the [Berkshire] Mall to be ready," Goerlach said of the town's financial picture moving forward.
Consolini emphasized that with a new school, much of the operating costs will go down, which will ultimately help the towns' budgets. She said it is tremendously costly to continue to make emergency repairs when things break — such was the case when the school's locker room ceiling fell a number of years ago — and that the design for the new school is more energy efficient. Further, the design incorporates future reductions to operating costs like the support of solar panels to reduce electric costs.
The $64.8 million figure is also the maximum for the project, and Greene says the building committee will be looking to cut costs as the project evolves to reduce the overall bonding.
"We're going to move quickly and get the lowest interest rate we can get, materials, and the labor," Greene said of the next steps. "Two years from now we are looking to open the academic wing, so it's going to be moving quickly."
A construction manager at risk and consultants will now be working with the building committee on those bids for a ground breaking later this year. While Tuesday's vote didn't conclude the project, it is a momentous turning point when a decade worth of work translated to inevitable construction.
"This is clearly a really important issue in this town and in both towns. I feel very strongly that the right decision was made and we're going to move forward with something that is going to be a great benefit to both towns," Greene said.
Complete update and write-thru at 10 p.m.
Tags: MGRHS school project,
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