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School and town officials, and volunteers working on the school, come together on Thursday to strengthen efforts.

Clarksburg Officials United Over School Building Woes

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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CLARKSBURG, Mass. — Local officials are trying to eliminate the fingerpointing over the condition of the elementary school and offer a united front to both the town and state in raising funds to address the 50-year-old structure's many needs.
 
"We have to change that message that's coming out of Clarksburg that we're at odds," said School Superintendent John Franzoni. "We have to change that message to that we're working together to make this school stay open, to continue to educate our students in the best possible way and to find a way to make it happen so this building is not viewed as being in decline."
 
Addressing the significant issues at the school after voters rejected a $19 million renovation has been a struggle that's often led to tension between town and school officials, confusion over responsibilities and a lack of guidance to a group of volunteers attempting to fix the problems. 
 
"I see a lot of fingerpointing sometimes," said Selectmen Chairman Ronald Boucher. "There's important things that need to be done here at the school."
 
Boucher had asked for Thursday's joint meeting between the Select Board, School Committee and members of the volunteer school building committee. Nearly 20 attended the meeting, and the hourlong discussion pointed to the difficulties in working through the situation. 
 
Who's responsible for the school? Who should be managing the bidding? Where was the money coming from? And was the building worth fixing?
 
"Are we sinking money into a hole that's going to suck us under and is merging with Stamford going to save us?" asked Select Board member Karin Robert, noting the long-term population trends for the area were not optimistic. 
 
The potential benefits of merging with Stamford, Vt., aren't fully known yet but members of the building committee were confident the school itself was structurally sound and worth saving. 
 
But it does need 100s of thousands of dollars in updates, at minimum. The feasibility study came up with a rough estimate of $4 million to address immediate issues. Among those are priorities identified as the heating system, bathrooms, handicapped accessibility, asbestos, the roof and security.  
 
"We know what the priorities are, we keep going over them again and again at every meeting that we come to," Principal Tara Barnes said. "And we come up to the same walls and we just don't have the money to do it. I think we've got the pieces ... if we just had help with the RFP piece and finding the money, I think we're getting there."
 
The Select Board has agreed to place a $1 million debt exclusion before voters that would be split between the town and school to address building and infrastructure issues. 
 
"I'm cautiously optimistic this will pass, but we need to get on our soapbox to show Boston we do have support for our school," said Town Administrator Carl McKinney. "I think everybody here wants the best for the students, but it's money driven."
 
That show of support may be critical in getting the $500,000 earmarked in state funds to fix the building's main roof. The earmark was placed by state Sen. Adam Hinds but Robert Norcross, who's heading the school building committee, said he'd been told the state may not give the money if the building is seen as "crumbling."
 
"We have to convince the governor's office that this building is not crumbling, and please release the money for a new roor," Norcross said. "I think we can do it."
 
The group agreed it would make efforts to reach out to the governor's office by encouraging the PTA and parents to write letters, following up on missives already sent by the Select Board, and Norcross suggested inviting Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito to tour the school. 
 
McKinney said he was also willing to help with writing the requests for proposals for any bidding but would need the specifications.
 
Norcross said volunteer group of tradesmen could help with that. "We have to try to get it as specific as we can to what we're doing so we get the proper people and the proper low bids," he said. 
 
Some work has already begun but obstacles keep getting in the way. The Veterans of Foreign Wars donated $5,000 toward a water heater but the school needs someone licensed and certified to install the propane-fueled heater. And some bathroom upgrades are being done but some of the fixtures don't work with the outdated plumbing.
 
The town is going to rebid for the boilers after the first round came in higher than expected. The town has $87,000 in Green Communities grant funds it can use and there's about $38,000 in the school stabilization account; the lowest bid for two oil-fired boilers was $129,000 but didn't include another $50,000 for asbestos abatement and two pumps.
 
Franzoni said some school choice funds could be put toward the boilers but it would depend on how much the current account was drawn down and budgeting for fiscal 2020.
 
Business Manager Carrie Burnett said there was $536,929 at the end of fiscal 2018 in the school choice account and $310,248 coming in for fiscal 2019. However, up to $420,000 will be spent down on wages and other expenses and $300,000 is set aside for emergencies.
 
"Typically the way the school has been running, we run down the appropriation first ... and then we go into school choice for the balance," Burnett said.
 
The group spent some time discussing how school choice worked and why students might be choicing out of the Level 1 school. The town has been paying $160,000 to $180,000 for students choicing out. 
 
School officials said there are a variety of reasons why parents may chose elsewhere — from convenience to a lack of programming, such as prekindergarten. Barnes said there are parents concerned about the sustainability of the school.
 
"Nobody wants to come to a building that's not going to be there," she said. "I know kindergarten children whose parents choiced out to Williamstown because they're afraid this school will not be here in eight years to graduate from."
 
The town would have to decide, Barnes said, if it wanted a vacant building or a school. 
 
"I think the school is important to the community here. ... We have elderly and let's face it, we need younger people coming into the community," Boucher said. "I think it's important we work together toward the same goal."

Tags: Clarksburg School,   

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