Lanesborough to poll residents on support for high school expansion project
LANESBOROUGH — Before weighing in on a $64.8 million proposal to rebuild Mount Greylock Regional High School, town officials want to hear from the community.
In the coming days, the town will send out a single poll question to all residents to gauge support for project, which could cost Lanesborough up to $13 million or more, counting interest.
Town Administrator Paul Sieloff said he supports the directive from the Board of Selectmen to craft and distribute the question, a task for which he has sought assistance from Siena College poll consulting agency to eliminate bias in phrasing.
"Are people more concerned with taxes going up too high or maintaining the school district at a high level?" Sieloff said. "This is going to be the biggest borrowing Lanesborough has ever done, and the net effect could be more pressure to decrease other parts of the town budget. Asking the question in an unbiased way could provide some very helpful information for the board to make its decision."
Residents ultimately will vote on whether to approve debt exclusion borrowing to pay for the project, which would tack more than a dollar on to the tax rate for up to 30 years. The vote could occur as early as March.
Meanwhile, members of the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee broadly agree on opposing the poll.
The committee's chairwoman, Carrie Green, said people who respond to the poll will skew in an unrepresentative fashion toward the opposition. She said the process of approving the proposal already includes numerous opportunities for the Lanesborough voters to weigh in, and questioning the district's future weakens ongoing regionalization efforts and that Lanesborough need not take any position at all, and should rather let the voters speak.
"There is nothing that says [the Lanesborough Selectboard] has to take a position," Green said. "It's the position of the voters that matters. I think they will and should understand the sentiments of the town, and the debt exclusion vote will certainly provide that."
She added, "Any kind of poll they issue will not be inclusive. Its results will be totally dependent on who fills it out, and not be a genuine representation of the town viewpoint."
On the other hand, former Lanesborough Selectman and former School Committee member Robert Barton, who played a role in initially suggesting the poll, think it should have been more detailed than the one single question.
Barton says he thinks the town is poised to reject the project as too costly, but a school building project remains necessary, and in order to get one, Williamstown — the wealthier of the two towns — is going to have to pick up more of the tab.
"The bottom line is, it won't be approved in Lanesborough unless it is somehow made more attractive and fair than it currently is," Barton said. "There are a number of ways to reduce the cost to Lanesborough."
Changes to the regional agreement to shift costs to Williamstown could do the trick, Barton said. The present split is roughly 67-33, respectively, for Williamstown and Lanesborough.
One significant change that has been proposed by Lanesborough advocates would recognize tax-exempt properties in Williamstown as figuring in total assessments. These include properties possibly valued well into the hundreds of millions, such as those owned by Williams College and the Clark Art Institute.
Doing this, advocates say, would better represent the actual assets of the two towns. Opponents say making such a distinction is impossible.
Sieloff hopes to put the poll out by mid-January and wants to schedule an informational special town meeting in February to discuss its results.
Barton said he thinks the two selectboards should meet together to discuss options, a meeting that the Lanesborough board tried to facilitate in August with a letter, but the Williamstown Board postponed, saying the new town manager, Jason Hoch, was still getting acclimated to the job.
Barton said there's still time for the meeting.
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