Voters at Monday's session questioned the cost and need for the school project, about the town's finances and if there were other options.
NOTE: Wednesday, Nov. 8, is the last day to register to vote in the special town meeting. The town clerk's office will be open from 2 to 4 and 7 to 8 p.m.; mail-in registration in the Town Hall entryway must be received by 8 Wednesday night.
CLARKSBURG, Mass. — Voters on Monday were trying to wrap their heads around some hard numbers related to the biggest public works project the town has ever considered.
Some 80 residents were attending the first of three information sessions hosted by the town to discuss the proposed $19 million school project. A special town meeting will be held at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 18, to revote on authorizing the borrowing. The project failed by one vote in September to reach the required two-thirds.
The town's share of the reconstruction/addition of the 65-year-old school would be $7.7 million, or about $350,000 a year, for 40 years. That's $3.25 on the tax rate and a total payoff of nearly $15 million.
Town Administrator Carl McKinney said he'd been advocating for a new school since joining the Select Board in 2003.
"I've struggled with this decision," he said. "This school needs to be done and it's not going to be free. ...
"We as a society have to take a deep breath and decide what we want for our future."
Select Board Chairman Jeffrey Levanos, however, was not as sanguine about the town's ability to bear the burden.
"You've got the town accountant saying the town can't afford it, you have the town treasurer saying we can't afford it, and the town assessor saying we can't afford it. That's what bothers me," he said. "You asked for the experts — these are the experts and not one of these three is getting up saying we're going to be OK, we can do this $30,000 a month for 38 years."
"I want the school like everybody else but I also want to live in this town," Levanos said.
The town operates on a budget of about $1.4 million, nearly half of which is taken up by health insurance, and school choice payouts and tuition to other districts. The school budget is another $2.4 million.
Five-year projections show the town incurring deficits of between $30,000 and $80,000. Those would require new revenues or cuts to balance the budget. While a school loan would not specifically affect the town's operating budget because it would be a debt exclusion, the cost placed on top of the annual budget would put severely limit the town and school's abilities to pay for future needs.
"As costs go up what has been going on for the last 30 years has been cutting and more cutting ... to live within the allowances of our allowable tax levy," McKinney said. "It's almost all gone ... we have a very challenging situation."
State aid has been flatlined for nearly a decade; growth is limited because nearly half the town is owned by the state and out of what's left, about 37 percent is buildable. Health care costs alone are outpacing the restrictions of Proposition 2 1/2.
McKinney ticked off a few revenue possibilities, such as creating new ordinances for marijuana and short-term rooms rental, and the fact that the town has very little in debt now.
The 30-year loan for capping the landfill and and the five-year loan to redo Horrigan Road have two more payments each, freeing up about $80,000 a year, although its still has years on the library loan.
The school project's been in the works for nearly a decade. The original building was constructed in 1952 at a cost of $160,000 and added onto in 1967 and 1972. The '70s addition, with a 20-year lifespan, is in the worst condition but the entire building is undersized, inefficent and out of compliance with contemporary school building codes.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority will pay for $11.3 million of the project, based on a 70 percent reimbursement rate for eligible items. That's up from the original 62.3 percent earlier this year.
The MSBA has set enrollment at 150 students for the design, based in part on demographics and birth projections. The school currently enrolls 140 Clarksburg children, 51 school-choice children and two children of Clarksburg teachers.
The school is not overcrowded, as some in the audience appeared to believe, but rather has insufficient space for programs including preschool and special education. The plan is to add 10,000 square feet to the building, bringing it up to about 34,000 square feet. That would largely be the addition of a middle-school size gym and art, music and science classrooms.
"There's no problem with us having 200 students in the building, we have almost that now," explained Supertintendent Jonathan Lev. Because MSBA calculates based on number of students, raising the enrollment figure would mean the school would have be bigger and costlier, he said.
Several in audience queried the possible closure of the school because of recommendations of the Berkshire County Education Task Force or the affect of the proposed collaboration with Stamford, Vt. However, neither of those issues specifically call for closing a school.
The task force has recommended a single, countywide school district to streamline governance, create efficiencies and provide equitable and quality education for all Berkshire students. It has no authority to close schools; any such decisions would be made by the towns. Stamford is looking to partner with Clarksburg because of changes in Vermont law that is forcing schools to create larger governance units, similar to what the Berkshire task force is recommending. Those talks are in hold in part because of the school vote.
School officials also put forward a "Plan B" of some $4 million in renovations that would likely need an override. That would cover the heating and cooling systems, new roof, exterior envelope, elevator, plumbing, electrical, kitchen, security and partial removal of asbestos.
Lev said the estimated cost was $2.75 on the tax rate, or 50 cents less than doing the entire school, over 20 years. This would also require an override or debt exclusion.
Several in the audience scoffed at the numbers but Lev said the estimates had been done through owner's project manager and confirmed by independent estimators and the MSBA. Still, some residents thought the town could get around state procurement and wage laws by hiring part-time workers or using volunteers.
Plan C would be to close the school and tuition the students elsewhere, which would cost about the same as educating them in Clarksburg.
"If the school vote goes down we will still have to fix the school," said McKinney, describing it as a "death knell" for the school if it doesn't pass.
But some questioned whether the school could continue to remain open in light of the area's projected population decline and changes in how education is being administered in a high-tech world.
"Forty years is way too long to put this town in jeopardy," said Robert Norcross, a former selectman.
Mark Billetz said he'd moved his family to Clarksburg just so his children could attend school here. "I'm willing to make the investment for future generations," he said.
Jason Morin said he was willing to make an investment, too, but not by this much. "Can you say the school is not going to close in five years?" he said.
"It's a hard bullet to swallow," said resident Art Lemaire, asking how many times would the town come back to taxpayers for more other capital needs.
"It's like a monkey on my back I can't shake," said Karin Robert of the cost. "I can't wrap my head round it."
A second information session at the school is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 7, and third on Wednesday, Nov. 15, also at 6.
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