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School Building Committee Rolls Double
Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
10:11PM / Thursday, August 11, 2011
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — School officials rolled the dice on Thursday night, opting to move forward to build a new Greylock School and renovate Conte School into a K-7 configuration.

The School Building Needs Committee voted unanimously to take the riskier road of convincing voters to support the $52 million project rather than an easier path offered by Mayor Richard Alcombright.

The mayor, who is also the chairman of the School Committee, proffered a proposal to only build a new Greylock School — a move that would most likely be supported by the state School Building Authority, not require a Proposition 2 1/2 debt-exclusion vote and postpone a controversial decision between Sullivan and Conte schools for a later day.

"It won't solve but it will help the overcrowding issues," said the mayor. "It will allow the city to move forward with a project while giving us more time to analyze the Sullivan and Conte issues."

Building committee member Matthew Neville, director of facilities for the school system, said Sullivan School was becoming costly to maintain because of heating and other issues.

Committee member Keith Bona, a city councilor, said he supported the idea of doing two schools but didn't feel comfortable rolling the dice on the SBA approving a doubled project or voters giving the financial backing.

"I'm just looking at the special election that just happened and a big part of that was talking about how it would affect the schools and it lost," he said. "I just don't know if we do it all over again it would be much different."

But some of his fellow councilors and School Committee members were willing to throw caution to the wind.

"We need to move forward more boldly," said Councilor David Lamarre, who is running for School Committee this election. "We wring our hands about a lot of issues and a lot things but I think we need political courage, I think we need to recognize this is an opportunity that's not going to present itself to us again anytime too soon."

He advocated for a new Greylock, a option that has had wide support, and renovating the historic Conte over building a more expensive and problematic Sullivan School, despite protests by some parents. "I think it's a fabulous place to locate kind of the cornerstone of our public school system."

School Committee member Mark Moulton said a lot of the love recently expressed for Sullivan School was as much for the administration and staff as the location — and the staff would move with the school.

"I think we've really got to look at what's in the best interest of our schools, what's in the best interest of our kids," said Moulton. "The two-school project — Conte, Greylock — just makes all the sense."

Several others backed that conclusion, including Council President Ronald Boucher, who is running for mayor.

"I think you get one opportunity to do these two building projects," said Boucher, who agreed with Bona that "it adds up to a big number." "I believe you get an opportunity, and the worst they can say is no."

Later, the mayor said he wasn't surprised by the support for two schools, because it was a conclusion the committee had come to months ago.

"I have concerns about the next steps, how we can rally together as a community, rally around this and support it," he said. "Our job was to recommend the best possible educational solution for the students of the city and I think we did that."

Mayor Richard Alcombright proposed just building a new Greylock but in the end, the building committee stuck with its original decision to put forward two school projects.

Trevor Gilman, who came as a skeptic but became convinced of the need, said it was imperative the city's leaders present a united front if they wanted community support. "If we can eliminate the politics and just do what's best for the community then we can get the best thing for my 5-year-old."

Should the SBA reject the two-school project, the consensus at the meeting was to go with a new Greylock School. Another option presented by the consultants to build a larger Greylock for 390 students, reducing Sullivan to 230 in Grades K-5 was rejected as being inconsistent with the K-7 model being established.

The committee took three votes, all unanimous, to submit a two-school project, to reject a Sullivan/Greylock configuration, and to move forward with a new Greylock School and renovated Conte School. The city would receive an 80 percent reimbursement and the preliminary estimated cost to the city would be $10 million to $11 million, or about $70 on the average tax bill.

The City Council and School Committee will be asked to approve letters of support to be submitted to the SBA with the city's preferred options in November. According to the time line, the SBA at its March meeting will give final approval to set the budget and the final scope of the project. A debt-exclusion vote, which would allow the city to raise its levy limit to finance the project, would occur before summer.

"The school option is the best for our kids today and for the next 50 years," said Councilor Alan Marden, recalling how leaders had "the guts" to push for a new Drury nearly 40 years ago.

"We'll get through the financial thing, we'll figure it out. We'll sell it."

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