Letter: Lanesborough Debt Exclusion Vote Best Option
To the Editor:
Some of those opposed to passage of the debt exclusion vote in Lanesborough on Tuesday, March 15, have been widely circulating the outrageous claim that the cost of the project is "$150,000 per Lanesborough student."
This figure is derived by taking the total cost of the project ($65 million) and dividing it by the total number of current "paying" students from Lanesborough and Williamstown (428) while excluding the tuition and school choice students who will not be bearing the cost. It is highly misleading and is clearly designed to scare people into voting no.
If it were "fact checked" it would clearly earn a "pants on fire" rating because 85 percent of the cost will not fall to Lanesborough at all, but will be borne by the state MSBA and Williamstown, and also because 428 is only the number of students currently in the school, not the total number of students who will benefit from it over the 30-50 year lifetime of the school.
My back of the envelope figuring tells me that Lanesborough's share of the cost of the project, with the interest on the loan, would be about $15,000,000 over 30 years. In this same time frame, assuming that enrollment on average stays about the same, we would be sending about 1,200 students to Mount Greylock Regional School. This gives a per-pupil cost for Lanesborough's share of $12,500, less than a 10th of what the opponents are claiming. And since the students are there for six years (7-12) the annual cost is about $2,000 per pupil per year, which doesn't strike me as an exorbitant amount of "rent" for a new state-of-the-art educational facility.
It also bears mentioning that if the new school is well built and well maintained, it should last longer than the loan payments and would then become essentially rent free.
Some of the opponents don't want to spend any money on any school project because we already spend too much on schools and our taxes are already too high. Unfortunately for these people, we are legally bound by our participation in the Mount Greylock Regional district to pay for and provide an adequate high school facility for our students. The existing building is about 50 years old and has many problems. It is far too large for the present cohort of students, is not ADA compliant, is energy inefficient and its design no longer suits our present educational programs.
You might suppose that renovation would be less costly to the town than new construction but that is not the case because the MSBA will not provide any funds for it. The estimated price tag for renovation is $58 million, with Lanesborough responsible for 30 percent. The actual cost could be higher or lower but, because there is no state aid, our 30 percent share of any repair over $33 million would end up costing us more than the project in Tuesday's vote. Since the $58 million repair cost is from a punch list of known problems I think that it is likely that the $33 million will be exceeded and that the repair option will end up costing us more. In other words, although it is expensive, a YES vote on Tuesday is the most prudent and cost-effective option available.
There is another troubling aspect to the repair option. If we do it piecemeal, a few million here, a few million there, we will be faced with bond exclusion votes year on year, like the present one but in smaller incremental steps, in addition to the annual school budget. I have no doubt that the voters will soon tire of this and will vent their frustration by putting tremendous pressures on the school board to keep cutting operating expenses in order to accommodate the needed repairs. This will eventually cut into the quality of the educational and extracurricular programs. And until the repairs are completed, we will be continuing to force our students to attend school in an inadequate and at times unsafe building.
There is another contingent of "No" voters who believe that by temporarily rejecting the present project and revoting it in May, we can wring a better deal from Williamstown and Williams College. This strikes me as a high stakes game of chicken that will not end up gaining us anything. The School Building Committee has made clear that the very aggressive building schedule that is planned for the project is one of the ways of keeping its cost down. Delays of even a few months will inflate costs.
The payment agreement between Williamstown and Lanesborough was recently restructured, making it more favorable to Lanesborough and Williams College has pledged $5 million for the project. Given the delays that the revote scenario requires, it doesn't seem likely to me that either entity would be willing to contribute enough at this time to actually end up making the project cheaper for Lanesborough.
The main reasons that people live in Lanesborough is its rural character, its proximity to Pittsfield, the affordability of its homes and the excellence of its schools. We don't have a typical picturesque New England town center nor a large stock of distinguished homes. The town reflects its industrial heritage.
If we let the high school continue to rot in place, then we will find it harder to attract good teachers to maintain the excellence and the town will be a less desirable place to live in for families seeking quality public education. Property values will slowly but inexorably decline. The decline of small businesses and the [Berkshire] Mall that we all have noticed will not abate. I don't want to see this happen and I think that voting for the school bond is a necessary step to counteract this. It may be more expensive than many in town would like, but it is the least painful of any of the options now available to us.
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