Sunday April 28, 2013

North Adams has a number of problems involving its elementary schools and the proposed renovation of Conte School isn’t going to solve all of them. It will, however, solve many of them, and the state will provide 80 percent of the funding for the $29.7 million project. This is too good an opportunity for the city to pass up, and voters should accept it at the polls on Tuesday.

The School Building Committee (SBC) originally proposed a new Greylock elementary school and a renovated Conte, which in an ideal world would have been a spectacular coup for the city. In the real world, however, the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) said it would fund only one project, and the SBC went with the Conte plan based on, among other things, its realistic cost, the strengths of the Conte building and the advantages of the site. Building a new school is always costly, and the state will not fund land purchases or site development. The city’s elected officials are behind the Conte plan, from the SBC to the School Committee to the City Council.

Critics have asserted that the Conte building is not worthy of renovation and the plan does not anticipate overcrowding elsewhere, now and in the future. While these concerns are not illegitimate they are making the perfect the enemy of the good. Conte will require a lot of work, but it does begin with a gymnasium that is larger than that offered by the other elementary schools and there is ample room for students as well as the modern technology that students now require.

Other criticisms are less responsible and appear to be politically motivated and/or the result of knee-jerk negativity. These critics have no basis for their assurances that the project will go well over-budget, and in fact a 15 percent contingency has wisely been factored in. The city is responsible for $6.5 million of the cost and there is no reason to assume that either a debt exclusion or override will be necessary.

More irresponsible are the flippant assurances that if North Adams votes the Conte project down it will not risk forfeiting the $23.2 million in promised state funding. There is considerable demand for state funds among Massachusetts’ communities, and the MSBA has not demonstrated a willingness to wait months or years for a town to get its act together on a school plan. If this project is rejected, those funds are going someplace else -- they will not be returned to taxpayers -- and North Adams can go to the back of the line. This is the maximum reimbursement rate offered by the school building authority, and city voters should not gamble with that kind of money.

Not every old public building should be preserved and improved, but not every one should be given up on either. Like Pittsfield, North Adams has lost buildings it should have kept, or allowed them to deteriorate. Conte, like Pittsfield High School, features impressive architecture that is not seen anymore in public schools. It’s early 20th century look will, once renovation is complete, fit well with an interior designed to meet early 21st century educational needs. The school, renamed in honor of former Republican congressman Silvio Conte, a dedicated advocate for education in more than three decades in the House, has a renovation plan worthy of its namesake and merits a Yes vote from voters Tuesday.