Rose Ellis: Stay united on Mt. Greylock project


WILLIAMSTOWN >> According to recent comments made in The Berkshire Eagle and on by Lanesborough town officials, Williams College and The Clark Art Institute should be assessed to increase the Williamstown portion (and reduce the Lanesborough share) of the Mt. Greylock Regional School building project. These comments are uninformed and lack credibility.

First of all, Williams College does pay tax on its commercial properties — faculty rental housing and business locations. In a town without a lot of commercial property, Williams College is the largest taxpayer.

What about the non-commercial holdings of Williams College and The Clark Art Institute? It has been suggested that they increase the town's ability to pay and that this should be figured into the cost-sharing formula.

The significant problem with this idea is a legal one. These properties are nontaxable by law. They cannot produce tax revenue; they cannot increase the town's ability to pay. Such an action would entail making Williamstown pay more without identifying the means by which it could do so.

In fact, it is likely that the benefits of Williams College and the Clark are already reflected in the assessments of residential and commercial properties in Williamstown. Their value to Williamstown is already being mostly captured in the town's ability to pay approximately 67 percent of the assessment to Lanesborough's 33 percent. Moreover, insofar as this value is not captured, this is largely because the benefits spill over to neighboring towns—including Lanesborough. If proximity to Williams College and the Clark increases property values, this effect is not going to stop at the town boundaries if the highways don't.

Could Williams College be pressured to contribute millions of dollars toward the building project? After all, this has occurred in a neighboring state with Middlebury College contributing to town projects. The problem is that this would not work in Massachusetts: during this phase of the building project, the Massachusetts School Building Authority would cut its contribution dollar for dollar in response to funding by any third party.

Williams College actively and generously supports the education of students attending Mt. Greylock. The school benefits from college funding for student programming and staff development with remarkable access to higher education resources including college faculty, student tutorials and workshops, on-campus courses, and participation in college life. The existence of the Williams College Center at Mt. Greylock founded in 2008 and dedicated to maximizing the educational value that the college can provide Mt. Greylock students is unique and highlights the valued, long-standing partnership Williams College shares with Williamstown and Lanesborough.

'Rich town' myth

Furthermore, the implication that Williamstown is the "rich town" and Lanesborough is the "poor town" is contradicted by good recent data. According to the US Census Bureau's Community Survey, conducted between 2010 and 2014 (summarized by Matt Rocheleau in the Boston Globe on Dec. 18), Williamstown had a median household income of $73,397, and Lanesborough was right behind at $72,708. Compare this to Great Barrington ($52,026), Lenox ($51,201), or North Adams (the county's poorest municipality) at $37,654. Many Lanesborough residents who moved to the town in the last 50 years were attracted by the district's good schools.

And this is the most fundamental point. Across the United States, as various studies have shown, property values rise and fall with the quality of local schools. (If you doubt this, ask any Realtor you know.) Undermine the high quality of Mt. Greylock and Lanesborough will risk shrinking property values — and the tax base. The town's property tax rate would then have to rise even further to pay for existing services.

All in all, if we want to preserve and defend the successful middle school/high school that has served Lanesborough and Williamstown since 1958, we should maintain the same basic funding formula currently employed, in which ability to pay (equalized valuation) is considered alongside the number of students each town sends to Mt. Greylock. Clearly, Williamstown will pay more, mainly because it is a more populous town and sends more students to Mt. Greylock. It will be happy to do so.

Our two towns — along with Hancock and New Ashford — have cooperated well for nearly 60 years. We've educated more than two generations of our youngest residents together, won several trophy cases full of Western Mass and state championships together, and (most important to the current controversy) we've worn out a school building together. A capable and conscientious building committee, representing both towns and chaired by a Lanesborough resident, has given us an efficient plan to remodel and rebuild Mt. Greylock.

The plan has been enthusiastically endorsed — and will be generously supported — by the Massachusetts School Building Authority. Please, let's not stop cooperating now.

Rose Ellis was superintendent of schools in Williamstown for 15 years and in Lanesborough for seven years.


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