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Town and school officials are hoping to reach more residents with information prior to the vote on the school project.

Clarksburg Debating Pros, Cons of $19M School Project

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Select Board Chairman Jeffrey Levanos wants residents to understand what the vote will mean for them. The plans can be found on the school website.
CLARKSBURG, Mass. — Residents in this small town are facing a tough choice in the coming weeks: whether or not to support a $19 million school building project. 
 
Whichever way the vote goes, it's going to have a significant impact on the town, its students and its citizens. 
 
School proponents say the estimated $400 annual increase on property tax bills over 40 years will pay off by keeping the 65-year-old school open and attracting families; others worry that if the project fails, so will the school, and their property values will drop accordingly, along with population.
 
Some say they just can't afford it.
 
The important thing, Select Board Chairman Jeffrey Levanos told the 50 or 60 residents Wednesday at the first of three information sessions, is that every voter is informed about the consequences so he or she can make the best decision.
 
"It sounds like the last thing we want is the school, but we're here to be educated," he said. "I just want to know what everyone's cost is going to be ... this is for 40 years ... I'm going to be 100 years old the next time I stand here and say the school is paid for."
 
Levanos' concern is that too many Clarksburg residents either don't know or are misinformed about the looming vote. An elderly woman told him she was all for the school since it would only add $3.25 to her tax bill — until Levanos explained it was $3.25 on the tax rate.  
 
About a third of the town's residents are senior citizens on fixed incomes. 
 
The Massachusetts School Building Authority will reimburse eligible costs up to 70 percent, or about $11.3 million of the $19 million project. That leaves the town responsible for $7,736,523.
 
The town will have to pass a Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion that will allow it to raise enough funds beyond the 2.5 percent cap to pay for the project. 
 
Clark Rowell of Unibank, the town's borrowing agent, said should the vote pass, the best bet is a 40-year loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development. The federal agency cannot guarantee any funds at this point but once its new fiscal year starts in October, it will know how much money it has on hand. The town can make out a pre-approval application and apply for the full loan after October.
 
The town would know by February or March next year if it has locked in the loan, which has an interest rate now of 3.375 percent. Until then, Clarksburg would have to issue about a $500,000 note to get it through the rest of the design and bidding process. 
 
"I think it's reasonable for me to say you will issue $2 million to $3 million in notes and another $3 million in early fiscal 2019," he said, should the vote pass. "My expectation is that in the spring of 2020, the School Authority will complete the audit and the Rural Development loan will close."
 
Should the town not get the loan, Clark said the project would halt but the town would still be on the hook for the $500,000 spent up to that point. 
 
Both he and Levanos said the town could not afford to take out a 30-year loan because the annual cost was too prohibitive. What officials are hoping to do is offset the tax burden with regular payments from the town and school. 
 
The town would pony up about $47,000 annually, largely from projected revenue from the several solar arrays and the fall off of the landfill loan. The school would set aside another $88,000 or so from school choice funds and savings. That would bring the cost to the taxpayer down to about $2.10 more on the tax rate.
 
This year's tax rate is $15.32 per $1,000 valuation. The average home of $155,000 would see its property bill rise $325.5.
 
Both are reliant on future funding and neither is a guarantee over the 40-year lifespan of the school loan. 
 
"I've been preaching for 15 years, and when I was a selectman, that the school is becoming unaffordable," said resident Robert Norcross. "You can't keep squeezing the rest of the town. Our infrastructure is going to pot ... there's a lot of other issues besides the school. So again, I love the school, I would love to see this project, but the whole dilemma ... is going to be that tax rate."
 
Select Board member Carlyle "Chipper" Chesbro said the town is operating on less than $900,000 and there are roads, bridges and fire trucks that will have to be dealt with. 
 
"None of us are against the school, we're trying to make it work," he said, adding that the anticipated future revenue will be shoveled back into the school, not the town. "It's going to be a big smack."
 
Levanos agreed: "We're getting new growth in and we're funneling it away from our infrastruture and that troubles me."
 
But one woman said the school was the only reason her family had moved to Clarksburg. Another that if there was no school, they would have to pay to send their children to North Adams or other towns. But there was also concern that 10 years down the road, there might not be enough population to keep the school open — and the town would still have decades of loan to pay off. 
 
But right now, the school's adding value to properties. One resident said he'd been able to sell his house to a young family after only one day on market. Mary Giron, who also works at the school, said some people may want to stay in town but she anticipated downsizing when her children were gone.
 
"We don't have a school, I'm not going to be able to sell it for a decent amount and there goes my retirement," she said.
 
Principal Tara Barnes said a quarter of the school's 195 students are school choice and that there's a waiting list to get into the Level 1 school. She anticipated savings in operating a newer building that would also have the space for special education programs that are now being outsourced at a cost to North Adams. 
 
Kristian Whitsett of Jones Whitsett began the session with an overview of the decisionmaking that led to the renovation/addition option preferred by the MSBA. The plan adds on space in the back for a real gymnasium, a music and arts room, and a science room, along with rebuilding the detiorating 1970s early education wing. 
 
The entire building envelope will be rehabilitated and the mechanicals, including the boilers that are outdated and difficult to fix. 
 
"We're looking at longevity as a factor ... we are significantly under the state average per square foot," Whitsett said. "This is the smallest school the MSBA has seen so we're definitely bringing it in under budget as much as we can."
 
The estimate just to fix what's wrong in the building and bring it up to code is pegged at $11 million, with no help from the state.
 
While the school is structurally sound, it's condition is bad and getting worse. Kindergarten teacher Kathy Howe said her room is so cold in the winter, she doesn't have to put her lunch in the refrigerator.  
 
"The money that is flying out the window," she said. "There are a whole lot of other things that I probably shouldn't mention."
 
Officials will hold two more sessions — at 6:30 on Wednesdays, Sept. 13 and Sept. 20 — at the school. A special town meeting on the debt exclusion is planned for Sept. 27 at the school, with a followup ballot vote on Tuesday, Oct 10, the same day as the state representative primary. 
 
The Clarksburg PTA is working on outreach efforts and information cards were mailed by the School Building Committee last week to every resident. Copies of the plans and financing will also be available at the Senior Center. 
 
"This school has been putting one of these [MSBA statement of interests] in every year for 14 years," Giron said. "This is the first time we've gotten this far and this may be the last time for some of us."

Tags: Clarksburg school project,   

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