CLARKSBURG, Mass. — Supporters of the $19 million school project were accused of unethical conduct in garnering signatures for a second special town meeting to approve borrowing for the project.
Another resident vowed to circulate her own petition for a third vote should this second one pass.
Select Board Chairman Jeffrey Levanos, at a crowded board meeting on Wednesday, said he had problems with the petition but that town counsel's opinion was that it was legal and a date will be set.
"Usually with a petition, the signatures are attached to it so people know what they are signing," he said. "I have just signature sheets ... This is a gray area here. I don't want to make this invalid because of it. ...
"My other concern was, not illegal, but a little unethical ... some residents have told me that it was the children who came up to the door with petition. ... You do have the right, with your signatures, to have another town meeting, and we will have another town meeting, it's just that I have issues with the way things are going. I have issues with the involvement -- it looks like using children."
Levanos said he understood why the petition was being done, and that town counsel had given the opinion that it was not illegal, but felt it was "a little unethical."
Kimberly Rougeau, a teacher, parent and PTG member, who spearheaded the petition, took offense.
"I care about my school and I care about this town and if I have no day care, my kid is going to be with me," she said. "I did not send children out."
Several of the two dozen or so in attendance denounced the allegations while another woman questioned the ethics of gathering signatures at the school, which was referenced in a Facebook post. The nearly hourlong discussion surrounding the agenda item of accepting the petition requesting a special town meeting ranged from the legality of the petition to deadlines to financial information to questioning of the voting process.
"I don't want a divided town, I just want it to be fair," said resident Robert Norcross.
The vote on the school borrowing failed on Sept. 27 one vote shy of the required two-thirds. The special town meeting drew a record turnout of more than 400 who could not fit into the school's undersized gym/cafeteria. More than 100 people stood outside and it took nearly two hours for people to be registered and vote by secret ballot.
A petition was almost immediately sent around, gathering more than 300 signatures, to call for a second and "fair and orderly vote" on the school project. The petition only needed 200 signatures, which were certified by Town Clerk Carol Jammalo prior to the meeting.
The renovation and addition of the 60-year-old elementary school would cost the town $7.7 million over 40 years, with the Massachusetts School Building Authority picking up $11.3 million. The price tag of $350,000 a year, or an estimated $3.25 on the tax rate, has given many of the 600 homeowners in town pause.
"I just ask that as you consider this petition and you look through the signatures, consider all the 318 people who signed and really look at the mix of demographics and the variance of community members who signed it," Rougeau said.
"It wasn't one certain demographic, it wasn't one certain group of people, it wasn't one certain street. It was all filtered throughout."
Levanos said the board would set a date after conferring with the School Committee and superintendent of schools on several questions. He also said town officials would hold an information session focused on Clarksburg's financial situation with its finance team available to answer questions.
The School Building Committee had held three public information sessions on the condition of the school, the process it went through and the addition/renovation plan that was approved by the MSBA. The town's bonding agent also answered questions about the borrowing process and cost and town officials spoke to the burden the project could put on homeowners.
A number of residents, including the Select Board, did not find those sessions sufficient in answering tough questions about the town's decreasing levy capacity, tight budgets or financial projections.
"I would like the treasurer, the accountant, and school business manager ... I want everybody at that meeting," Levanos said. "We need to know if the town can afford it."
Select Board member Carlyle "Chip" Chesbro Jr. said it was "just the truth about the town."
"Six hundred homes in town are going to pay for a $19 million school," he said.
Officials also said they were working on creative ways to make this next special town meeting operate better and that it would be held in town. Jammalo cautioned those in attendance that it could not be an election. Town meeting operates as the legislative body and those voting in it must be present, she said.
Resident Karen Robert said it wasn't fair that people had made it to the last special town meeting to have their votes being dismissed. She vowed to have her own petition for another revote should this next one pass.
Revotes on school projects aren't unusual. A $51 million renovation of Monument Mountain Regional High School passed but failed twice to win a debt exclusion vote to fund it. A petition in North Adams called for rescinding a borrowing order for what became Colegrove Park Elementary School; that ballot vote failed. In Amherst, it took four votes (three failed; two prompted by citizens' petitions) before school officials shelved a $67 million school project earlier this year.
In other business, the board accepted the warrant for the second-quarter water bill; signed a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with one of three solar arrays sited in town for $13,800 a year for 20 years; and sold a cemetery plot to Jeffrey and Mary Lou Levanos.
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