WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — After six years and hundreds of hours of committee discussions about how to utilize a $5 million capital gift from Williams College, the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Thursday voted to spend down the remainder of that gift on an eight-lane track and multi-sport grass playing field at the middle-high school.
By a vote of 5-1, the committee decided to reverse a February vote to reserve $1 million in the capital gift as a "building renewal" fund for the Cold Spring Road campus and seek borrowing authority from the district's member towns for up to $1.8 million to complete the athletic field project.
Instead, on Thursday the committee voted to exhaust the remainder of the funds in the Williams College gift — about $3.5 million according to the most recently available figures — and ask the towns this spring to allow the district to borrow up to $800,000 to complete the track and field project.
For years, public officials in Williamstown and members of the regional School Committee have advocated to preserve some portion of the gift money, allow it to appreciate as part of the college's multibillion-dollar endowment and have it available for future extraordinary capital expenses like a boiler, a roof or window replacements.
But Carolyn Greene told her colleagues that the district has received feedback from the member towns of Lanesborough and Williamstown indicating that they would rather spend the money upfront on the athletic field project and reduce the amount of borrowing the district needs to close the funding gap between cash on hand and the anticipated cost of the track and field.
"We've done our best to incorporate the feedback from this committee and town Finance Committees, Select Boards and town managers and take into account all our towns are currently dealing with," Greene said.
"The message that we're getting very clearly from our town officials is that we want to find other ways to help look toward the maintenance of all our school buildings, not just Mount Greylock, but the elementary schools, which are aging. One of the ways that towns can help school districts do this is by creating stabilization funds."
In a separate vote on Thursday, the School Committee decided, 6-0, to ask the member towns' annual town meetings to authorize creation of a stabilization fund in the district.
The lone member voting against the decision to deplete the funds in the Williams College capital gift was Steven Miller. Committee member Ursula Maloy did not attend Thursday's meeting.
Miller reiterated his enthusiastic support for completing the track and field project after so many years of discussion but also made a final case for not entirely spending down the capital gift.
"I've always liked keeping the gift as large as possible because, historically, the Williams endowment does well," Miller said.
"While the past is no predictor of the future, we've already essentially spent $5 million from a $5 million gift and still have $3 million more on the order of six years. … In terms of long-term cost to the towns, it's riskier to keep the money on the endowment, but it does have the possibility of providing more resources to the town in the future but also has costs to the towns upfront right now.
"There are going to be tradeoffs."
Julia Bowen said she was persuaded by the news that town officials in both towns supported the idea of liquidating the entire gift.
"I was a strong proponent of maintaining that reserve because my belief was we were in partnership with our towns, and our towns wanted us to do that," Bowen said. "I really appreciate the conversations Joe [Bergeron] and Jake [McCandless] have had with the towns because it feels like a real partnership.
"It sounded to me like the towns want to see success in the schools and the buildings maintained, and they need to balance the tax rolls at this point. This was their request. So I want to be on the record, as someone who wanted to make sure that we keep money in reserves, that this is a plan that I really can support."
On Friday, Williamstown Finance Committee Chair Melissa Cragg said she and her fellow committee member Fred Puddester, Williamstown Select Board member Hugh Daley, Lanesborough Fin Comm members Stephen Wentworth and Regina DiLego, Lanesborough Town Administrator Gina Dario and Williamstown Town Manager Robert Menicocci met McCandless, the Mount Greylock superintendent, and Bergeron, the district's business manager.
For the committee, Bergeron laid out one hypothetical scenario for how an $800,000 bond could be paid off by the district.
Under Mount Greylock's current capital apportionment, 31 percent of the bond's cost would be borne by Lanesborough and 69 percent by Williamstown. The district's bonding agent advised that a reasonable estimate for cost under one payback scenario, a 10-year note, would be $120,000 per year for 10 years, split between the towns — or $37,000 per year for Lanesborough and $83,000 per year for Williamstown.
If the borrowing is approved by each town's town meeting this year, the payments in subsequent years would become part of the district's annual capital line item in the omnibus budget it sends to the towns for approval each spring.
Bowen and Greene stressed that the district will continue to engage in fund-raising efforts that also will close the funding gap for the project and ensure that the district needs to borrow less than the $800,000 for which it will seek approval this spring.
Greene noted that the district already hopes for Williamstown's May town meeting to approve a $100,000 grant from the tax money raised under the Community Preservation Act; Lanesborough has not adopted the CPA.
And the district is exploring other ways to facilitate fund-raising.
On Thursday, the School Committee heard a first reading of an amended district policy on gifts.
The current policy states, "In the case of gifts from industry, business, or special interest groups, no extensive advertising or promotion may be involved in any donation to the schools."
The amended policy as presented on Thursday evening reads, "In the case of gifts from
industry, business, or special interest groups, no extensive advertising or promotion may be
involved in any donation to the schools without the express approval of the School Committee."
"This is pretty specifically targeted at looking at some major fund-raising efforts by what will be a non-profit entity to raise as much money as possible for the track and field project," McCandless told the committee. "There may be opportunity, and I think it's a wise thing to consider, that for a major gift or major gifts, that we do indeed want to consider a sponsorship of the facility as a whole or substantive pieces of the facility."
Bergeron told the committee that he had concerns about the legality of involving the School Committee in decisions around advertising and wanted to run the proposed policy language through the district's counsel. The School Committee's policy subcommittee will continue to work on the language in hopes of bringing the amendment back for a second read at a future meeting.
As for the stabilization account, Bergeron said the creation of a "piggy bank" to address unexpected maintenance (like a failed boiler) or planned maintenance (like replacing an aging roof) could be funded annually through the appropriation process and spent as needed by the School Committee.
The district's stabilization fund actually would have three separate accounts: one for the middle-high school, which is owned by the district, and one for each of the district's elementary schools, which are owned by their respective towns, who lease them to the district.
Stabilization fund expenditures for the elementary schools likely would involve a discussion with town officials, Bergeron said.
"The conversation with the town would be: If we have funds in the stabilization fund associated with that school, we can go to those funds first," he said. "That would have been the case, this year, for example, with the Lanesborough Elementary School boilers.
"Or, if we're saving up for a roof, and the town would prefer to cover the repair in a different way, that would be the conversation."
The elementary schools in both towns are about 20 years old, and district officials have for years discussed the prospect of major capital expenses to keep both buildings up to date.
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Williamstown Watching Washington, Not Yet Fretting Impact on ARPA Funds
By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town manager Friday was cautiously optimistic that a potential debt ceiling deal in Washington, D.C., that includes "claw back" provisions on American Rescue Plan Act funds would not impact the town's ability to utilize the remainder of $2.2 million in pandemic-related federal relief.
"I'm not especially concerned," Robert Menicocci said. "I always put an asterisk beside something like that when we talk about anything legislative. You never know until it's in ink, when it's signed by everyone — whether local, state or federal legislation."
The $350 billion ARPA passed in 2021 included funding for state and local governments. Williamstown's share works out to $2,222,073, according to the commonwealth's website.
A good deal of that money is already "out the door," spent on both direct COVID 19-related expenses and other items approved by the Select Board over the last couple of years.
In order to give residents a chance to try out the town's new electronic voting devices on a low-stakes question, meeting organizers devised a couple of sample questions to kick off the meeting.
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Town meeting Tuesday rejected a bylaw amendment that would have removed barriers to manufactured housing, endorsed the use of electronic voting devices at the meeting and chose to take no action on a bylaw change that would have required dogs to be leashed in public areas.
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