Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: School project an investment in public education, future
LENOX >> Let's say the students in your town attend an increasingly decrepit, aging school built in 1960 where the locker room ceiling collapsed in 2009 and where, more recently, the campus had to be shut down for two days because heat and humidity made the floors so slippery they were deemed dangerous.
The school, with 590 students in grades 7-12, has a strong academic reputation. But there's a mold problem, the science labs are antiquated, and the heating and air conditioning systems are in sorry condition, as are the plumbing, mechanical and electrical infrastructure. Heating costs are soaring.
A school allowed to linger in this sad state year after year sends a chilling message to the youngsters it serves: If the community doesn't put a high priority on education, why should you?
But let's say a school building committee works 10 years to come up with a rescue plan. The result is a proposal costing just shy of $65 million. The state would cover $33 million and the two towns the school serves would pay the rest.
As is obvious by now, the school is Mount Greylock Regional High School, the towns are Williamstown and Lanesborough, and citizens are about to decide once and for all whether the project lives or dies.
Williamstown residents vote this Tuesday, and the expectation is that they will approve the plan. But in Lanesborough, where the balloting is on March 15, the outcome is highly uncertain. Fierce opposition has surfaced, judging from a recent voter survey and from published accounts of a raucous, more than three-hour informational session last Tuesday, complete with catcalls and jeering, attended by nearly 150 residents.
Bear in mind that because of its larger tax base, Williamstown would handle two-thirds of the local cost, Lanesborough the rest.
A 29-year financing plan with low interest rates would spread out the burden. And here's the bottom line:
If you live in Lanesborough, you'd pay only about a buck a day, $304 to $392 a year, on the tax bill, based on the average-priced home, until the bond is paid off. Less than a cup of coffee, a lottery ticket or one bottle of beer at the local tavern. Williamstown homeowners would pay $1.08 to $1.56 per day — $393 to $569 a year.
The opposition in Lanesborough could determine the outcome of the building project since failure to approve the plan in either town kills the deal, and the state sends its $33 million elsewhere.
Supporters say this is the best, most cost-efficient solution and they are right in pointing out that besides the benefits to students and staff, high-quality schools reap financial rewards for the town such as rising property values and new residents attracted by a gold-standard school system. Opponents argue it's too expensive, higher taxes would drive some residents away and home prices would decline.
Specifically, both towns will be voting on whether to exclude the impact of the bond debt from the 2.5 percent cap on property tax increases known as Proposition 2 1/2.
In a recent Eagle commentary, Lanesborough resident Perri Petricca, who has four children in the school system, made a persuasive case for the project, noting that the Mount Greylock building doesn't meet safety codes, contains high levels of hazardous materials, is not ADA-compliant and wastes an estimated $700,000 a year in energy costs and maintenance.
"The school building is an important element of the educational process, it should enhance the experience, not detract from it," he wrote. "Our students and teachers deserve better."
As president of Petricca Industries, he's well-qualified to judge the three-phase, three-year project as "a fair compromise between renovation and new construction" — less expensive than an all-new campus and more affordable than a repair option that would cost $58 million but would get no funding from the state.
Several Lanesborough critics want Williamstown to ease the burden on taxpayers by adding tax-exempt properties owned by the nonprofit Williams College to the tax rolls, but that's a violation of federal tax law. Williams plans to kick in $5 million toward capital improvements separate from the project.
Other opponents contend that Lanesborough is less prosperous than its neighbor to the north. The median household income in Williamstown is just over $72,000 a year, as of 2013. In Lanesborough, it's $62,500, but the project's impact on the annual tax burden is comparably lower.
Why is it that nearly every school improvement project in Berkshire County is subjected to such intense scrutiny and withering criticism? We've seen the same resistance in Pittsfield, Great Barrington and North Adams, among other communities.
It can be argued that opponents tend to be residents who have never had, or no longer have, children in the public schools.
That may be a factor, but I fear the problem runs far deeper. Public education is undervalued and taken for granted by too many citizens, and always has been.
Maybe there's resentment by some that school staffers and administrators are better-paid, with greater benefits than many in the private sector — at least that's the perception.
But I suspect there's a lack of understanding about the importance of a safe, nurturing environment for top-quality education in a brutally competitive global economy, not to mention the benefits of learning for its own sake.
Let's hope that in both towns, a robust turnout of citizens who appreciate the years of diligence that produced the Mount Greylock school project yields the simple majority needed for approval.
Contact Clarence Fanto at firstname.lastname@example.org
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