WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee could decide as soon as next Friday to put an artificial turf field project out to bid.
The committee has called a special noon meeting for Oct. 16 with the sole purpose of potentially putting to bed an issue that has consumed hours of discussion at the committee level, months of work by a subcommittee the elected officials convened and years of conversations in the community.
"We can try as much as we can to try to find common ground. But at the end of the day, there's going to be a difference of opinion as to what should be done, and it's our job as elected officials to take the vote," Steven Miller said in Thursday's meeting. "It is not the job of future committees. We have been looking at this for years. We are the ones who have been studying the material, who have been listening.
"We owe it to our community to have a vote now in October. That is what we said we were going to be doing back in June when we postponed things. The best thing we can do right now for our children is to give them opportunities to be outside.
"It is almost criminal for us not to do our duty and have the vote while we are the committee."
There is no record in the minutes of the School Committee's meetings from May through July of any decision by the committee to commit to a vote on the issue in October.
There is a discussion in the June 11 meeting minutes that references a hope the committee would know "in October" the current value of the funds remaining in the Williams College endowment that are designated as proceeds from a $5 million capital gift the college gave Mount Greylock middle/high school in February 2016.
To date, the School Committee has not discussed receipt of any such valuation.
The last substantive vote of the full School Committee on the so-called Phase 2 or fields project came in September 2019. That is when the panel decided to ask the Phase 2 Subcommittee to prepare a new request for proposals for the athletic field work.
On a 5-2 vote on Sept. 26, 2019, the committee asked the Phase 2 group to draft an request for proposals that would seek a "base bid" to just address Title IX and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance issues on Mount Greylock's current field and invite "add alternate" bids for a new field (either artificial or natural) and a track.
At Thursday’s meeting, it was unclear whether the Phase 2 Subcomittee ever completed that work. There is no record it did in the minutes of its Oct. 1, 2019, meeting. A new RFP is not on the agenda for the Phase 2 Subcommittee’s Dec. 9, 2019, meeting, and the draft minutes indicate no vote was taken to authorize drafting a new RFP. Based on the records in the district office, Dec. 9 was the last time the Phase 2 Subcommittee met, so those minutes never were approved.
Jamie Art, who made the motion last September to put the project out with a simplified base bid plus add alternates, reminded his colleagues of that decision.
"I don't know if that vote is still [binding], but that was the last vote that we took on what we should go out to bid with," Art said. "Obviously, we're not in a position where we have all those plans developed to go out to bid. But I think the theory behind that motion was an attempt to demonstrate to the community that we had actually gotten some sort of cost comparison for the different ways that this project could unfold.
"There may be other ways we can get a cost comparison -- not with the same level of accuracy as going out to bid."
Miller and Al Terranova, who served on the Phase 2 Subcommittee in the fall of 2019, voted in the minority of the 5-2 Sept. 26 School Committee vote.
And each on Thursday argued the School Committee has all the information it needs to make a decision now on whether to send a project out to bid.
As he has several times in the past, Terranova on Thursday called voices objecting to $1 million to $1.5 million investment in a synthetic field on fiscal or environmental grounds "white noise."
"What does this negotiation sound like?" Terranova asked. "We keep making concessions, and the other side keeps moving [the goalpost]. Does that sound familiar? … This, to me, is an absolute no-brainer.
"If you want to talk about money, I'll be happy to talk about how we can spend it. … It's been on the boards for literally months. I don't know what you want to do. I think we should start digging a hole tomorrow, that's where I'm coming from."
Miller said the School Committee and the Phase 2 Subcommittee has done the "due diligence" required to make a decision, and the time has come to move forward.
He also argued that the non-field priorities the School Committee has discussed since 2018 (replacement of the district's central offices and a "rainy day" fund to address future extraordinary maintenance needs) were somehow misappropriations of the gift.
"We are paying for a lot of things from the Williams College gift fund that really should be paid for by the two towns," Miller said. "We are using the gift fund to pay for the trailers [that housed the central administration for the last two years], we've been using it to pay for studies [apparently referring to, among other things, design work for the artificial turf field itself]. We've been using it to pay for the administrative multipurpose building.
"When we're trying to decide what we want to do with the money and how much we want to keep in reserve and trying to decide what obligations we might want to give to the taxpayers in the future, the taxpayers have been relieved of a lot of obligations that they should have been paying for by using the gift to pay for these things. I think it's important to remind people that we have been able to keep taxes low, we have been able to keep the [Mount Greylock] building project a little bit lower because we've used the gift for so many things."
Later, Miller reiterated the point.
"The gift from Williams College was not meant to relieve the taxpayers of the two towns from the expenses that they should be doing," Miller said. "It was meant to be a gift to the district to do wonderful things, to provide wonderful opportunities."
In fact, there were no such restrictions placed on the gift by the college.
"Williams is pleased to be able to strengthen further its partnership with Mount Greylock to include a fund for the school district's capital needs, current or future, that fall outside the proposed project with the [Massachusetts School Building Authority]," then-college President Adam Falk said in a news release.
"The fund is designed to support supplementary capital projects in ways that will increase educational value and reduce costs to the district and its member towns."
The same news release went on to liken the gift to Mount Greylock to an endowment the college created for Williamstown Elementary School when it was built.
"Williams has a similar fund for Williamstown Elementary School (WES). It was built over five fiscal years (2006 to 2010), with original principal of $1.1 million," the news release reads. "Since then WES has spent from the fund's spending account almost $214,000, the account balance is almost $214,000, and as of June 30, 2015, the fund's principal had grown to $1.5 million."
That WES endowment has been tapped over the years to address needs like replacement controls on the elementary school's boiler system and up-to-date projectors in the school's classrooms -- the kind of "obligations" that otherwise would have fallen to taxpayers, to use Miller's test.
Miller agreed to prepare a presentation for the Oct. 16 meeting laying out the pros and cons of an artificial turf field and summarizing the research already conducted by the district and, specifically, the Phase 2 Subcommittee. He asked anyone who has questions about the proposal to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is little question which way Miller and Terranova will vote when the question comes before the short-handed, currently six-person committee. Based on their statements in the past and the discussion on Thursday, it is a near certainty they will vote in favor of sending a turf field out to bid.
On Thursday, Alison Carter joined them, saying, "I would strongly advocate we send this forward as our current committee."
That leaves Art, Christina Conry and Carolyn Greene.
Art repeatedly has said the committee does not have good data on the long-term cost comparisons of a natural field versus a synthetic field which needs to be replaced after 10 years, and on Thursday renewed calls for a layered RFP that would get quotes on various options.
Conry, along with Miller, is the only member of the committee guaranteed to still be on the panel in a month. The current chair did not express an opinion one way or another on the main issue on Thursday but did say as of then she was "uncomfortable making a decision" and wondered whether there was enough time to "collect information we can put forward in a meaningful way on [Oct. 13]."
Greene, who is on the Nov. 3 ballot, began Thursday's discussion by laying out the reasons for and against making a quick decision -- i.e., one before the committee turns over -- without revealing which side she favored on that question.
"It's not going to be a 6-0 vote," Miller said.
It also is not entirely certain that a vote to put the project out to bid on Oct. 13 will do anything to take it "off the plate" of the committee's next iteration, which will have at least four and possibly five new members out of seven.
If the committee honors the spirit of its Sept. 26, 2019, vote, that would mean paying its architect to draw up new bid documents, which will take time. If the panel decides to go with just an artificial turf field option, it still would need new bid documents (reflecting modifications since the project first was put out to bid), but the revision of the summer 2019 bid documents likely would be less time consuming.
Assuming that hurdle is cleared by Nov. 3, the actual bids won't come back until weeks later, at which point the new School Committee could be faced with making the actual decision of whether to go forward.
Miller argued that if the RFP is released in October and bids come in at or below the district's estimated cost, the contract would be awarded.
But the bid document for the multipurpose building that the district released in September of last year includes the following language: "The award of this Contract is subject to the approval of the Awarding Authority." And also, "The Awarding Authority reserves the right to waive any informalities in or to reject any or all Bids if it be in the public interest to do so."
In any event, the last three times the district put projects out to bid (once for the fields, twice for the administration building), all of the bids it received were above the estimated cost.
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