CLARKSBURG, Mass. — A subdued and sparse School Building Committee voted on Monday night to recommend no further votes be taken on the proposed school project.
With that, the group of community members and educators dissolved after two years spent developing the project.
The $19 million renovation and addition project went down to defeat on Saturday at a second special town meeting by a vote of 292-263. It was a record turnout of 555 that weighed on the largest public works project this town of less than 1,700 had ever considered.
"I think they spoke loud and clear," said committee member Edward Denault, who had been a fierce champion of the project. "I'm not happy with it but it is what it is."
The project had failed to secure a two-thirds vote in September by one vote, prompting a citizens' petition for the second try.
School Superintendent Jon Lev said he had spoken with representatives at the Massachusetts School Building Authority and the news wasn't good. The school district would not be able to submit an amended plan to hold onto the $11.3 million the MSBA had approved for the project.
"They said you cannot. The approval is for the plan you submitted," he relayed to the committee. "You need to put in a new statement of interest in the spring."
When the school's statement of interest was accepted into the program two years, there were 300 other projects waiting in line, Lev was told. The $11.3 million would be freed up to go toward another project in a community that wanted to fund it.
The hope of tapping into the MSBA's Accelerated Repair program was also dashed. That program is for schools in good condition that have discrete envelope or heating projects for updating.
"We have an expensive, expensive project," Lev said. "They said you can put in for it, and I'm not going to say you'll get a no ... you really don't fit the qualifications."
The only option would be to resubmit the SOI and wait to re-invited into the program, he said.
"We know from experience it takes 10 years," said Denault.
The $19 million option, of which the town would have been responsible for up to $7.7 million, would have completely renovated and updated the building, including bringing it into compliance with modern codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and creating room for a preschool. It also would have added 10,000 square feet for a middle-school sized gym, and arts and science classes, offering more flexibility for program offerings.
A renovation-only was pegged at $11 million and immediate needs in plumbing, heating, electrical and asbestos abatement was figured at $4 million.
A group opposing the school has called for volunteer tradesmen to fix the building and says there's a list of at least a dozen plumbers, electricians and others. Having volunteers do such substantial work on a public building raises serious legal issues related to bidding, procurement and certification, and union labor.
A representative at the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance said anyone working on large public projects must be certified with the state. She had never heard of volunteers taking on such a significant effort.
Lev said if the volunteers asked what needed to be done, the priority was the removal of asbestos in the building.
Patricia Prenguber, School Committee chairman and member of the building committee, said school officials felt blindsided by the flip of town officials.
"We had everyone on board 100 percent for this before we were even approved," School Superintendent Jon Lev said. "And we had the town saying we can afford this."
Both Town Administrator Carl McKinney and Select Board Chairman Jeffrey Levanos, who was School Committee chairman when the planning began two years ago, had initially supported the renovations to the aged and undersized elementary school. As late as Aug. 23, they had signed off on the finances to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which was providing up to $11.3 million.
But as the cost of the project began to sink in — at $350,000 a year for 40 years — and residents began to question the wisdom of the spending, they backed off. At one of the six information sessions, Levanos said he had to represent all the residents in town, not just the ones who could afford the school.
McKinney had gone from saying a failed vote would be a "death knell" to the town to warning voters that the town would not be able to meet its capital needs if the school project was approved.
Denault said he was disappointed by couldn't fault them for giving in to pressure. "It's hard on those guys," he said. "They take a beating."
School officials had hoped their efforts to find ways to pay for the school loan would have helped ease the burden. But, Denault noted, it was easier to attack than defend.
He also took exception to a paper (with no attribution) being passed around at the town meeting by opponents stating there was interest on the bonding (which had been repeatedly reported by iBerkshires but was not in an article by another publication). Twice, Moderator Bryan Tanner had to halt their dispersal. Denault said he had called the Ethics Commission, which said distributing such material was a violation of election rules. Lev said he would bring it up with the Select Board.
The building committee members did, however, determine that they would push for the promised Proposition 2 1/2 override floated by town officials as a way to meet capital needs for both the town and the school.
Any override would raise the town's levy capacity permanently, rather than temporarily as the school debt exclusion would have done.
Committee members said that for all the talk about town needs, over the past decade the bridges at Gates Avenue and East Road had been replaced, Horrigan Road repaired, a new roof put on the town garage, some renovations made to Town Hall, and a police cruiser and highway truck purchased.
"I think a missed opportunity was not highlighting at a meeting that some things have been done but the school has not had one penny into this building," Principal Tara Barnes said.
Denault said a new "fix and repair" regime was in town and future spending should go through the same stringent assessment as the school was put through to be fair. But he wasn't optimistic an override would pass, seeing how the school was rejected.
"We need the town to commit to repair this building ... if we don't repair this building and repair it right, we will lose the school in Clarksburg," Lev said. "That right now has to be the most important focus: is the town coming through and doing it right?"
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