WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Whatever decision the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee makes about how to spend the remainder of a $5 million gift from Williams College, this much is undeniable: The vote will not be made in a vacuum.
More than three years, countless hours by several committees and thousands of dollars worth of professional planning have been spent developing plans to apply the proceeds of the gift, given in early 2016 to help the district pay for things not covered under the Massachusetts School Building Authority's building program.
Shortly before member towns Lanesborough and Williamstown approved the $64.8 million project that March, the college gift gave the School Committee some cushion to pay for things the MSBA would not, including: a parking lot; repairs needed to make the school's playing fields compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title IX; and a new home for the central administration that ran Mount Greylock and its two feeder elementary schools, Williamstown Elementary and Lanesborough Elementary.
Eventually, Mount Greylock's School Building Committee decided it could keep the parking lot in the building project and pay for it with proceeds from the money borrowed by the district at 3 percent interest, keeping that nearly $1 million in the Williams College Endowment, where returns historically eclipse that 3 percent figure.
That move allowed the School Committee to focus on three potential uses for the proceeds from the gift: the fields, the administration building (which morphed into a multipurpose building that includes storage space and public restrooms) and the maintenance fund.
That maintenance fund consistently has been pegged at $1.5 million for years. It is intended to mirror a similar fund that started with a $1 million gift to the Williamstown Elementary School when it was built in 2000. In recent years, the WES fund has been tapped to do things like repair the heating system at the elementary school to the tune of $125,000 last October.
Keep in mind, that a lot has happened in the district since that February day in 2016. The School Committee has: shepherded a $64 million building project; promoted the expansion of the Mount Greylock Regional School District to include the elementary schools in Lanesborough and Williamstown; completed a complex series of negotiations to unify the contracts of its labor unions in three separate districts into one set of unified contracts; seen two chairs of the committee step down mid-term; dealt with the closure of its school buildings in mid-March through the end of this academic year; and still conducted the day to day business of setting district policy and advancing districtwide budgets to voters in both member towns.
On this issue, though, the School Committee currently is at a crossroads: Does it proceed with a fields project that is, in part, required by law, or does it wait and see how much money from the gift it can devote to the fields while still maintaining that $1.5 million reserve? Three non-school entities, the Williamstown Select Board and Finance Committee and Lanesborough Board of Selectmen, already have weighed in to argue the latter course.
Here we try to answer some of the questions about swirling around the issue and, with the help of iBerkshires.com archives, minutes of School Committee meetings and tapes of past meetings on Mount Greylock's YouTube channel, provide some historical perspective on how the district got to where it is today.
The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee conducts a public forum on the artificial turf question.
Why an artificial turf field?
While everyone agrees that Mount Greylock has to make its playing fields compliant with the ADA and Title IX (it has an April 2022 deadline to do so), the exploration of how to make those modifications led to a plan that included creating a new multipurpose artificial turf field that could be home for the school's soccer, football and lacrosse teams.
Proponents of an artificial turf field argue there is a manifest need for consistent outdoor play space at Mount Greylock, where scheduling on John T. Allen Field in the early spring is a challenge at best and where the field is severely beaten up at the end of the fall.
More than that, the artificial turf field would benefit all Mount Greylock students, not just athletes, by opening up opportunities for outdoor physical education classes.
Artificial turf field proponents have answered concerns about the cost of upkeep and replacing the synthetic surface with a cost-benefit analysis that shows how many more usable hours a turf field can supply. And they have answered health concerns by agreeing to incorporate nontoxic "fill" to replace the crumb rubber used in many artificial fields, including the football field at nearby Williams College.
Why not a turf field?
Opponents list a number of objections: the toxicity of the materials, which they say is not limited entirely to the crumb rubber; increased heat on the playing surface during August and September, when fall sports teams are practicing, and late May and early June, when lacrosse teams would still be active; and the big-ticket item of replacing the artificial surface down the line, when funding sources like the Williams College gift will be exhausted.
What is the Williams College Endowment?
First, what is it not? It's not a savings account. The endowment can and has lost money, most dramatically in 2009, when it lost 18.4 percent of its value in 12 months during the last global economic crisis. The plunge forced the college itself to institute cost saving measures like a moratorium on new infrastructure.
That said, the endowment usually performs better than your savings account, earning annualized returns of 9.1 percent over the last 20 years according to the most recent annual report dated June 30, 2019. That same annual report shows a total value for the endowment of $2.9 billion, its high water mark.
The $5 million gift from the college to the Mount Greylock Regional School District "lives" in the endowment. It's one small slice of that multibillion dollar pie, and its value rises and falls like the rest of the endowment.
The stock market crash because of the current COVID-19 pandemic is one indicator that Williams' endowment likely will take a hit. But the college's investments are more diverse. "Rather than directly investing the portfolio in specific stocks or bonds, the Investment Pool is invested with numerous investment managers allocated across nine asset classes," reads a page on Williams' website. "This allows Williams to take advantage of sophisticated investment strategies and private markets, as well as gain exposure to a diverse basket of assets that helps to dampen the portfolio's risk profile."
The college has said it will not be able to give the district an exact figure for the gift's current value until at least June 30, when the full endowment's value is reported. But the college also has signaled to the district that it should think twice before making new expenditures from the gift.
"It's worth keeping in mind, though, that no one knows where financial markets will go next," Williams College Vice President Jim Kolesar wrote Mount Greylock Superintendent Kimberley Grady in early May. "The accepted wisdom right now is to push off spending from capital to the degree possible."
How much has the district spent from the gift already?
The biggest chunk committed to date, $2.5 million, was committed to a multipurpose building under construction on the Mount Greylock campus that will house the central administration, storage for "attic stock" from the building project (like replacement ceiling tiles) and public restrooms for the school's athletic fields.
The vote to spend that money was taken shortly after the School Committee heard that the current value of the gift was $6.8 million, well more than the original $5 million, and, it was thought at the time, enough to cover the building, an equivalent amount for the fields and the $1.5 million maintenance fund.
But $2.5 million is just part of what has been committed from the fund, which also has been tapped to pay for design work on the potential projects that have been considered for the building and fields, rental of construction trailers that have housed the central administration staff for the last couple of years and maintenance on the campus' heating oil tanks.
The most accurate figure at the moment for total expenditures from the Williams College gift is just more than $3.3 million, according to the district.
The School Committee, including then-chair Joe Bergeron, in April 2019 absorbs the news that the bids for the multipurpose building came back significantly higher than expected.
What is that multipurpose building?
Last November, the School Committee voted to spend $2.5 million to build a building to house a dozen staff members who keep the district running — staff who were displaced when portions of the old Mount Greylock Regional School were demolished. The building also is being used to house storage of spare materials to be used at the middle-high school and public restrooms for the athletic fields.
According to design documents, 1,368 square feet of space is given over to storage of "attic stock," 936 square feet is for the public restrooms, and 2,862 square feet is for 10 offices (one space marked "closet" on the design document later was converted to an office), a conference room, a break room, bathrooms and records storage for the district office. According to the district's architect, the cost per square foot for the project, which includes site work and parking for district staff, is "just shy of $500 per square foot."
At one point, the multipurpose building was to include space for outdoor maintenance equipment (like riding lawnmowers) and space for a waxing room for Mount Greylock's popular Nordic ski program, but officials decided they could create that square footage for lower cost in a pre-fabricated metal building.
Feb. 11, 2016,Williams College gives the Mount Greylock Regional School $5 million for "projects outside of the scope of work" of the district's $64.8 million addition/renovation project.
Oct. 12, 2016, The School Committee's Financial Subcommittee issues a report specifying 11 potential uses for the gift (document below).
Feb. 14, 2017, The School Committee hires an architect to help develop a plan to spend the capital gift at a cost not to exceed $98,000.
Jan. 8, 2018, The Transition Committee (the de facto School Committee during the transition from three separate school districts to a unified PreK-12 district) appropriates $39,800 from the Williams gift for "schematic design" work by Perkins Eastman.
March 14, 2018, The Transition Committee votes unanimously to pay nearly $1 million for Mount Greylock's new parking lot with proceeds from the building project bond and not with money from the Williams College gift. See article here.
April 26, 2018,The Transition Committee sees a plan from Perkins Eastman that estimates $3.7 million for the construction of a multipurpose building and work on the school's athletic fields to bring them into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title IX. Of that $3.7 million, $1.57 million was the architect's estimate for the administration, storage and public bathroom building alone.
Chris Dodig, then a member of the Transition Committee who served on the district's working group that studied how to use the capital gift notes that, "We started ... and we had up to about 14 ideas of things that we were going to use the money for. And over time, it really got narrowed down to three things that we were focused on. The first is a $1.5 million reserve, which then reduces what we're talking about to $3.5 million. The other two are covered by this proposal ... the central administrative office, and we need storage for our equipment, cross country skiing facilities ... and then the ADA compliance and the fields, which is also included in this design. ... When it was the Mount Greylock committee discussing it, that [$1.5 million] reserve was considered very important."
Dodig also comments on the Transition Committee and district's exploration of options for existing properties up and down Route 7 and arrival at a decision that the best option is to build space for the central administration on the Mount Greylock campus.
June 14, 2018: The Transition Committee authorizes the superintendent to enter into lease negotiations for a trailer to temporarily house the central administration (displaced by the building project). The cost for 10 months is reported to be $30,000 without utilities or the addition of an internal bathroom.
July 18, 2018: In a 4-0 vote with three members absent, the Transition Committee decides to use a phased approach that separates the multipurpose building from the field work — the beginning of the Phase 1 and Phase 2 discussion of the Williams gift appropriations.
Aug. 8, 2018: The Transition Committee creates the Phase 1 and Phase 2 Subcommittees and allocates $173,600 for design work by Perkins Eastman to design the multi-purpose building. It is not clear from the minutes of that meeting where that money was to come from, and there is no recording of the meeting on the district's website, it is reasonable to infer the Williams College gift was to be the source.
Nov. 8, 2018: The Phase 1 and Phase 2 Subcommittees are reorganized after the dissolution of the Transition Committee and the advent of the new Mount Greylock Regional School Committee after the first November election following expanded regionalization of the district.
Jan. 31, 2019:The School Committee authorizes the release of bid documents for a multipurpose building with an estimated price tag of $2.4 million. Perkins Eastman's architect says the firm's cost estimator underestimated the cost of "plumbing, electrical and HVAC" in developing estimate of $1.57 million in April.
Feb. 25, 2019:The School Committee follows the recommendation of the Phase 2 Subcommittee and allocates $158,000 for design documents (again, presumably, from the Williams College gift) for a projected $1.7 million project to address the field needs, including an artificial turf field.
April 3, 2019:The School Committee learns that bids for the multipurpose building came in even higher than the January estimate, at $2.8 million. The committee also authorizes a $27,857 expenditure from the Williams College Capital Gift to clean and polish two oil tanks at the middle-high school — the kind of extraordinary maintenance cost that many mean when they talk about the $1.5 million "maintenance fund" portion of the gift.
April 11, 2019: A 5-1/2 hour School Committee meeting ends without a decision on whether to accept a bid on the multipurpose building.
Spring, 2019,Community members begin raising objections to the idea of an artificial turf field at Mount Greylock based on the environmental impact and potential negative health consequences.
July 30, 2019: School Committee holds community forum on the artificial turf field controversy.
The School Committee has held lengthy conversations about the administrative building and the fields at Mount Greylock over the last couple of years.
Aug. 8, 2019: Phase 1 Subcommittee recommends moving some of the storage space out of the multipurpose building in order to reduce its footprint and lower the cost; it also reports that it has, again, reviewed potential off-campus locations for the administrative offices and found no better alternative to the campus site. Phase 2 Subcommittee reports its intent to put the field project out to bid within the month.
Sept. 23, 2019: Phase 2 Subcommittee opens bids for the field project, getting responses ranging from $2.85 million to $2.98 million.
Sept. 26, 2019: School Committee rejects $2.85 million bid for the field work that includes an artificial turf field.
Nov. 5, 2019: The School Committee hears that the current value of the Williams College gift ($5 million when given in 2016) was $6.8 million. It votes to accept a $2.5 million bid for the multipurpose building and concurrently commit at least $2.5 million to the field project (without having an active bid for that work).
Nov. 12, 2019: On advice of the district's legal counsel that the Nov. 5 vote was invalid because public bodies cannot vote to set a floor for the price of public projects, the School Committee revotes to accept the bid of $2.5 million for the multipurpose building without any corresponding commitment for the fields.
Jan. 2, 2020:School Committee Chair Dan Caplinger is directed by the committee to be the point person to collect more information from advocates for and against a turf field in order to inform the committee's decision.
Jan. 9, 2020: Phase 2 Subcommittee reports that it wants to change the "fill" used in the artificial turf field from crumb rubber (made from recycled tires) to Brockfill, a more expensive organic alternative.
Jan. 29, 2020: A School Committee member calls for a vote "next week" on whether to move ahead with the field project, including an artificial turf field.
Feb. 13, 2020: School Committee is told that after accounting for the multipurpose building and other expenses paid for from the gift, it would have $3.66 million remaining; setting aside $1.5 million for the maintenance fund, that would leave $2.16 million for the fields.
Feb. 21, 2020: Then-School Committee Chair Dan Caplinger resigns.
February/March 2020: The effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic send shock waves through the financial sector, impacting, among other things, the Williams College endowment, valued at $2.9 billion as of June 30, 2019, which includes, among other things, the proceeds of the 2016 gift to the district.
May 6, 2020: School Committee's three-person Finance Subcommittee recommends that the district hold off on making any capital investments given uncertainty about the current value of the capital gift and a concern that the $1.5 million for future extraordinary building maintenance needs be maintained.
May 14, 2020:A discussion by the full School Committee shows that several, perhaps a majority, of the seven members are open to the idea of proceeding with a capital investment in the athletic fields in spite of the Finance Subcommittee's recommendation.
May 26, 2020: Williamstown's Select Board votes 3-1-1 to recommend that the School Committee preserve at least $1.5 million of the Williams gift in a building maintenance fund.
June 4, 2020:One member of the School Committee clarifies her remarks from the May 14 meeting about the Williams gift.
June 11, 2020: The School Committee decides to put together an advisory committee to help clarify the remaining issues around the turf field.
June 18, 2020: The School Committee's Finance Subcommittee advances a plan for an advisory group.
July 16, 2020: The Finance Subcommittee decides to put plan for an advisory group on hold until the fall in order to not drain resources away from other district tasks - like figuring out a plan for the resumption of in-person classes and how to pay for it.
Sept. 24, 2020: The Finance Subcommittee elects not to bring an advisory group plan to the full School Committee.
Oct. 8, 2020: The School Committee sets meeting to settle the field question once and for all.
Oct. 16, 2020: The School Committee votes, 4-2, to send project with synthetic turf field out to bid.
Nov. 23, 2020: District's architect gives a price tag for developing new bid documents, but School Committee delays decision on whether to order them.
Dec. 21, 2020: The School Committee hosts a pair of public fora to allow community members to make their cases and help bring the committee's four new members up to speed on the pros and cons of an artificial turf field.
Dec. 22, 2020: The School Committee approves $44,000 contract with the district's architect to draw up design documents in preparation for putting fields project (with artificial turf field) back out to bid.
Jan. 7, 2021: The School Committee's Finance Subcommittee looks at value engineering option for second iteration of the fields project.
Jan. 14, 2021: The School Committee votes to remove both the synthetic turf field and track from the fields project and prepare bid documents for a project that only addresses the Title IX and ADA concerns with the current Mount Greylock fields.
April 27, 2021: The School Committee agrees to put to bid a project to address the Title IX and ADA concerns.
Aug. 12, 2021: The School Committee talks about collecting information that members might need to make a decision about the artificial turf field question.
Sept. 9, 2021: On a vote of 5-2, the School Committee decides to prepare bid documents for a synthetic turf field and a track.
Oct. 14, 2021: District's hope to move forward on the fields project delayed by waits to get a proposal for design work from its architect, and some Williamstown residents react strongly to the the September decision by the School Committee.
Updated at 12:26 p.m., June 3, 2020, to correct an error and provide more information on the multipurpose building.
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