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Cheshire, School Officials Squabble Over School Building Lease

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
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CHESHIRE, Mass. — The town will update its lease agreement with the Hoosac Valley Regional School District for the use of Cheshire School.  

The town and school district agreed to collaborate on updating the lease agreement Tuesday and after an, at times, contentious discussion the Board of Selectmen agreed to allow the district to continue using the library space in the interim while the inconsistent lease is sorted out. 
"I think if we just add and subtract some things," Selectman Mark Biagini said. "I think we just have to clean it up, and I don't think we have to draw up a whole new contract."
The issue came up late in 2020 when Selectman Robert Ciskowski shared his concern over a trash roll-off outside of the library. He thought the district was tossing out town-owned property and overstepping the footprint of the lease.
Superintendent Aaron Dean, who attended the meeting remotely, clarified that the space is temporary for teachers who need a better internet connection during remote learning. He said if it is an issue to use this space, the district will simply find another area in their footprint.
As for the materials, anything of value was dispersed to Adams and Cheshire libraries, and anything left was broken or of little value, he said. Dean said the district was throwing out outdated books, old rugs, and broken furniture.
The library was not part of the lease agreement for the district's central office functions, but Dean said he was given the go-ahead by the former town administrator, Edmund St. John IV, to use the space.
Knowing this, the town proposed increasing the rent by 25 percent, proportionally to the added space. This was a preliminary discussion between interim Town Administrator Mark Webber, Chairwoman Michelle Francesconi, and district officials.
The lease currently is $10,000.
The school district's Business Manager Erika Snyder was also on the call and questioned an increase when resources have been taken away from the district since the Youth Center had moved into the former school. She said the district had access to five bathrooms and now only has one that is in questionable condition.
She added that there have been heating issues, and the district went an entire winter without heat or hot water. 
"I think we have endured a lot without asking for much in return," she said. "We have been trying to be good tenants ... so it is a surprise when we have gotten less and we somehow have to pay more, especially when it is a shared space."
Dean said the district has tried to be a good neighbor and knew the district wanted to move it offices into the former school to provide Cheshire with some revenue to offset the fixed costs of maintaining the building. He said the Central Office's use of the building also bettered the town's insurance situation.
He added that it also provides the very internet being used during the remote meeting and have made infrastructure improvements. The Selectmen have been holding meetings in the same room as the School Committee.
"We are trying to be good partners and do things in kind in the spaces that we share," he said.
Snyder said any increase in rent would ultimately just take away from the education side of the budget.
"This was a reasonable number at the time. It is what the district could afford," she said. "Every cent we put into a noneducation expense is something that takes away from an educational expense."
The discussion was then opened up to the selectmen and Ciskowski bluntly told the district to get out if they didn't like the building.
"If the conditions are that bad at the discounted rate per square foot that you are paying I would recommend that maybe the district office might want to exercise its option to give us a 60 days written notice and find better quarters," he said.
Chairwoman Michelle Francesconi said this was not the opinion of the select board and did not think it was proper for Ciskowski to essentially tell the district to vacate the building.
Ciskowski alleged that Francesconi was overstepping her role as chair and was taken aback after hearing she had preliminary discussions with the school district about a rent increase.
"You like to be a jury, judge, and executioner around everything. Why don't you let the board be involved in some things?" he asked. "I think we are falling into that trap that we had with the previous town administrator."
Francesconi said many of the town duties had fallen on her during the period when there was no town administrator. She said she would not apologize for stepping up in a time of need.
"There were definitely conversations that had to be had outside of the board that I had and it is what it is," she said. "There was a heck of a lot of work that had to happen behind the scenes, and I will stand by that every step of the way ... I won't back down standing up for myself because that work had to be done and somebody had to do it."
The conversation then moved to St. John IV, who resigned last month, and Ciskowski said he thought St. John overstepped his authority by giving Dean the go-ahead. He told Dean that Cheshire was not like Adams and the town administrator had much less power in Cheshire.
Dean said St. John had been the in-between for the School Committee and the select board, and he told Ciskowski if had so many questions he should have reached out instead of airing grievances during a public meeting. 
"There are many times you have walked by on your way to a meeting. You haven't picked up your phone to have a conversation with me," Dean said. "You haven't asked a question. You are throwing stones from over there, but I am right here in Cheshire."
Snyder said the lease agreement in general was inconsistent. She specifically cited contradictions in regard to utilities and custodial services. She said she has made attempts  in the past to sort out the agreement with the former town administrator.
There were questions on whether or not the School Committee even signed a more recent agreement. There was an email chain with the former town administrator, but Snyder could not call up a signed document.
Both the Selectmen and the district officials questioned the legitimacy of the lease and all parties agreed it was a good idea to sort it out.
"I don't know where we stand," Ciskowski said. " It was sloppy on both sides."
Francesconi felt that a wide-open discussion, such as the one they were having, was not productive, and it would be better for the district and interim Town Administrator Mark Webber to draft an updated agreement for the board and School Committee review.
Dean said he would have the district counsel update the lease and submit it to the town in two weeks.
The board members agreed to let the district continue to use the space. They also agreed to allow it to continue to clean the former library. Questionable materials would be put aside instead of being thrown out. Francesconi said the space is scheduled for a deep clean so there was no reason to halt the cleanup.

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Cheshire Receives Funds to Address Route 116

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
CHESHIRE, Mass. — The town has received partial funding through a MassWorks grant to pave a portion of Route 116.
Highway Superintendent Robert Navin told the Selectmen on Tuesday that the town received $200,000 from the state to pave about half of the state road.
"That is the big news and at least we can pave the worst half of it, the upper section," he said. "That will be as soon as the weather breaks."
Navin said the town first applied for the project in full through MassWorks, but they were unsuccessful.
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