Mount Greylock school officials make pitch for $64.8 million building project
LANESBOROUGH — "You can pay less and get more, or you can pay more and get less."
That was the message on Tuesday night from Mount Greylock School Committee Chairwoman Carrie Greene, who made the case for a $64.8 million proposal for a high school building project, for which the state would pay approximately 60 percent of the reimbursable cost.
And Mark Schiek, co-chairman of the Mount Greylock School Building Committee, said if the district balks now, the state will find another taker.
"They've got money they want to spend," he said, "and if we don't move forward, they'll go spend it with somebody else."
Roughly 100 Lanesborough residents attended a special town meeting on the proposal to replace the aging facility, which is becoming a financial burden to maintain.
Some people, among them several town officials, are concerned the project is too costly and will drive their taxes so high that people might leave town and property values will decline.
Other residents, including town and school officials, contend that every option was considered and that this is the cheapest, most effective plan to build a structure that will enhance the educational program. They also said that quality schools attract new residents, enhancing the town's property values.
Mark Schiek, co-chairman of the Mount Greylock School Building Committee, described the 10-year process of working with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, finally getting a commitment in January of $33.2 million in state funding toward the cost of the project.
Schiek said the local share of the cost would be between $31.5 million and $35.3 million.
Lanesborough taxpayers would be responsible for 32.3 percent of that cost, for an average annual tax increase between $304 to $392.
Williamstown taxpayers would pick up 67.7 percent of the local share of the cost, and face an increase in their average annual tax bill between $393 to $569.
The debt would be incurred by issuing bonds.
Both towns would need to vote to exclude the bond debt from the Proposition 2 1/2 tax increase limit. If either town fails to pass the debt exclusion, the project fails and the effort to replace the school would have to begin anew.
The debt exclusion vote in Williamstown has been set for March 1. In Lanesborough the vote is set for March 15.
Several residents wondered if there is a way to reduce the cost. Schiek and Greene said the MSBA has stringent standards in the design process that requires, among other things, a certain amount of space per student and declines to fund unnecessary amenities.
Committee members already had reduced the cost of the project by nearly $8 million by eliminating certain elements of the design, like leaving the parking lot as is and reducing the air conditioning in certain parts of the building, Green said.
But during the final design phase, school officials and architects will work together to "value engineer" the project to further reduce the cost by choosing less expensive materials and construction logistics, Greene said.
A number of speakers, including former School Committee member Robert Barton and John Goerlach, chairman of the Lanesborough Board of Selectman, sought to have Williams College's tax-exempt properties included in the tax levy to reduce Lanesborough's share of the cost.
When it was noted that the properties are tax exempt because the school is a nonprofit entity, and taxing those properties would be a violation of the federal tax code, it was suggested that a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement be drawn up, an option that Williamstown officials already have ruled out.
Williams College recently announced that they would create a $5 million fund to go toward capital improvements for the school that are outside the scope of the new building project.
Others suggested abandoning the project and continuing to use the aging school.
The building on Cold Spring Road was built in 1960, with an addition in 1972, when it served 1,200 students in 177,000 square feet. Now it houses roughly 590 students from Grades 7 through 12. Aging HVAC systems, inadequate science labs and mold issues have been cited. The structure also suffers from periodic issues in major building systems including mechanical, electrical, plumbing, building envelope and windows. And the cost heating the building is problematic.
In 2009 the locker room ceiling collapsed and the antiquated boilers had to be replaced. In 2013 school was closed for two days because the HVAC system was overwhelmed by heat and high humidity, which settled on the floors making for a slick, hazardous situation.
Officials said the cost of repairing the structure would keep getting more expensive, and the state would not share in that cost. They also noted that with the new 133,000-square-foot building, energy costs would be cut by about 50 percent.
Barton wondered about the possibility of declining population and enrollment.
"My greatest concern is that it might be designed for the wrong size of enrollment," he said.
Greene noted that census data shows a stable population in northwestern Berkshire County, and forecasts a gradual increase in the coming years.
One resident noted that good schools attract new families, and that the perception that Williamstown residents are better off than Lanesborough residents is a misconception.
She noted that the average annual income in Williamstown is about $74,000 and in Lanesborough it comes to about $73,000.
"We need to have a great school system to ensure the future for this community," she said. "This isn't just an investment in our kids, it's an investment in our community."
At a glance ...
If both towns pass the debt exclusion for the Mount Greylock Regional High School project, work would begin on demolishing the front section of the school and reconnecting the mechanicals to the remaining sections in August 2016. School would continue in the remaining section of the building during the three-phase construction process:
Phase 1 would involve construction of the public spaces such as the cafeteria, auditorium and administrative offices.
Phase 2, set to start in early 2017, would include construction of the new classroom wing.
Phase 3 would feature the renovation of the existing gymnasium.
Once those phases are complete, the students and staff would move into the new space in the spring of 2018, and the remains of the original structure will be demolished by October 2018.
The entire project is expected to be done by January 2019.
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