Lanesborough faces tough vote on $64.8 million Mount Greylock high school project
This story has been modified to remove references to a School Committee member's position on Williams College. It also corrects the description of a pledged $5 million contribution to the high school.
LANESBOROUGH >> The margin looks thin.
Lanesborough residents will cast ballots Tuesday on a proposed $64.8 million Mount Greylock Regional High School renovation project that has been years in the making.
Polls will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Town Hall on the debt exclusion proposal, which would exempt spending on the project from the limits of Proposition 2 1/2. Williamstown voters already approved the measure.
A recent town survey put out by officials and responded to by nearly half of residents saw a majority urging the Select Board to "not support" the project.
Forty-nine percent, or 435, said reject it, while 42 percent, or 377, were in favor. Eighty voters opted for a "none of the above option.
A similar majority in the same survey encouraged officials to "explore regionalization with another high school."
The current building, build in 1960 — an addition was built in 1972 — has a number of problems, including aging HVAC systems, inadequate science labs and mold issues. The structure also suffers from periodic issues in major building systems including mechanical, electrical, plumbing, building envelope and windows.
Proponents say if Lanesborough rejects the deal, the towns will remain stuck with a badly deteriorating school building in need of at least $58 million in investment without the aid of state funding.
Project opponents, including Selectmen John Goerlach and Henry "Hank" Sayers and former School Committee member Robert Barton, all say they want to see Mount Greylock renovated. But they're holding out for a better deal.
"We all know we need a new school, but we need it to be affordable," Sayers said. "People in town just cannot afford [the present deal]."
Lanesborough's Finance Committee, on the other hand, voted 3-2 in favor of supporting the project.
According to the terms on the table, the Massachusetts School Building Authority would pick up roughly 60 percent of the $64.8 million total, leaving between $22 million and $24 million as Williamstown's share, and between $10.5 million and $12 million as Lanesborough's, per the district's regional funding agreement.
Borrowing on that amount would add nearly $2 per $1,000 of property valuation to Lanesborough's present tax rate of $19.36 per $1,000 — about $400 added to the average annual tax bill.
Williamstown voters, who in a March 1 vote overwhelmingly supported the project, would see a less dramatic increase to the town's present tax rate of $15.79 per $1,000 of valuation. This is because the town's total assessed property value triples Lanesborough's.
The present regional agreement, amended in late 2015, pegs the funding split at 67 percent to 33 percent, respectively, for Williamstown and Lanesborough. Roughly 60 percent of the current enrollment of 535 are from Williamstown.
The argument of those opposing the present terms in Lanesborough starts here: Williamstown has more businesses, more tax revenue, more wealth generally. The regional agreement, opponents believe, should be skewed so Williamstown pays more than it currently does; Lanesborough less.
An oft-cited way to do this is to recognize Williamstown's numerous tax-exempt properties as figuring in total assessments.
On the Lanesborough survey, 51 percent of respondents said it was "very important" to "collect financial support from tax-exempt properties to offset the cost" of the project. Those properties include Williams College.
Opponents in Lanesborough think they might get a better deal by asking for a contribution from what they see as the big elephant in the room: Williams, which holds a $2.4 billion endowment.
The college already has pledged to invest $5 million for capital needs "that fall outside the proposed project."
Carrie Greene, chairwoman of the Mount Greylock School Committee, called both avenues to lower costs to Lanesborough "non-starters."
It's possible that as much as several million dollars might be shaved off the final cost, but no special measures will be afforded Lanesborough, she said.
It's "not going to happen," Greene said, and Lanesborough officials are "misleading people by saying voting 'no' will get a better deal."
Regarding the Williams College option, Greene said, "The college has given absolutely no indication that they will increase their contribution to improve the chances of the vote."
If Lanesborough voters reject the proposal, the School Committee has until May 4 to schedule a second vote on the matter, according to a 120-day time frame allotted by the MSBA.
But Greene said if there's a second vote, Lanesborough will still be looking at the same deal.
"It will be the same deal, and it's a very good deal," she said.
Sayers said, "If that's the case, then I think it will fail twice."
Even if the proposal fails twice, the School Committee can still petition the MSBA for more time to sort out a deal. It would not exactly mean the project was dead.
"If pulling $5 million makes a difference, maybe there's options," Greene said. "But if it has to be $10 million or $15 million, then I think we're done. It's a completely different project."
Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.
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