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Mount Greylock School Committee Rejects Recommendation to Delay Field Decision
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:19AM / Monday, May 18, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The majority of the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Thursday indicated it is ready to move forward with a decision about building an artificial turf field, just one week after its Finance Subcommittee decided unanimously to hit the pause button.
Without taking a vote on the matter at its regular monthly meeting, it was clear from the comments that four members of the seven-person committee do not believe concerns about the value of the remainder of a $5 million capital gift from Williams College are enough to hold off on the field decision.
As often has been the case, the most vocal proponent of building the turf field was Al Terranova.
He had asked for an agenda item on the field and opened the discussion by noting it consistently has been the one issue that has divided the School Committee during his tenure.
"I've been on a lot of committees," Terranova said. "I think this is one of the most unified committees I've been on … with the exception of the turf field.
"The turf field has become a political agenda with side things such as: we're experimenting with children, we're enlisting a jock mentality, we have hearsay science, we have an anti-Williams College theme that keeps coming up, we have a geopolitical world view. All these things, I really think, impact why we're having so much trouble doing this."
Terranova pointed to "architects, engineers, facility people, construction people, teaching staff" who advised the School Committee's Phase 2 Subcommittee and the 8-0 vote of that Subcommittee that recommended the artificial turf field.
He was the only member of the School Committee who definitively said Thursday that he will vote in favor of a turf field when the question again is put to the panel.
But three others indicated they were ready to take up that question in spite of the hesitancy expressed by the Finance Subcommittee.
"I do agree we're at the stage where the information has been gathered, and it's up to the School Committee to make a choice," Steven Miller said.
"It's not like we can save this money for another project down the road," said Carolyn Greene. "It's more like do want to do it now or do we want to wait and see how the economy shakes out a couple of years from now? I think there are a lot of really compelling arguments for why we would want to move ahead."
Both Miller and Greene mentioned that it could be a good time to put a project out to bid, while construction companies are looking for work in a flagging economy. Greene said that while Williamstown's largest entity, Williams College, has paused construction, the town itself used the break in the local economy to pave the primary street in its Village Business District.
A fourth member of the committee, Alison Carter, said it is worth discussing whether it is "worth the risk" to move forward on a project without knowing exactly how much money is left in the capital gift account to pay for it.
"I do think having reliable outdoor play space is going to be really important, given that, probably, putting students in a gym together is not going to be ideal for quite a while," she said. "I also … do want to respect the work the Phase 2 subcommittee has done for the last several years to come up with how they think this should be spent.
"I want us all to keep that in mind as well."
Greene did indicate she was open to the idea of pausing the capital project and asked whether the district had been advised to do so.
"Has anyone at the college asked us to not move forward with further expenditures on the project?" Greene said. "I'm getting a sense it's not just the committee or the administration. … Because that would better inform my understanding of what's going on."
Superintendent Kimberley Grady responded by reading aloud an email the district received from Williams Vice President James Kolesar on Tuesday.
"I've asked for a now-ish read on the fund, and will pass that on," Kolesar wrote. "It's worth keeping in mind, though, that no one knows where financial markets will go next. The accepted wisdom right now is to push off spending from capital to the degree possible. But you've got at least a couple things you have to do."
In addition to paying for the multipurpose building under construction the Mount Greylock campus, the district also has outstanding bills for design and rental fees on the construction trailers that have been housing the central administrative staff for years.
For years, the School Committee has framed the discussion of how to use Williams' capital gift in terms of three priorities: replacing the administrative space lost when the old Mount Greylock was renovated (an initiative that transformed into the multipurpose building now underway), addressing the deficient and non-compliant fields at the middle-high school and preserving some portion to address future capital needs at the school, like a new boiler or a new roof.
The value of the college's $5 million 2016 gift has fluctuated over the years, something that has worked to the district's favor until two months ago.
"The gift was not a gift in cash," noted Jamie Art, the chair of the Finance Subcommittee. "It was a gift in shares of the Williams College endowment. At the end of June, 2019, it was probably over $6 million. But that's the last time the gift was valued."
The School Committee has committed $2.5 million for the multipurpose building. In February, it learned that — based on the capital gift's pre-COVID-19 value — it could hold back the $1.5 million and still have a little more than $2 million to devote to the fields, which need to be brought into compliance with Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act whether or not a turf field (valued at more than $1 million) is included.
Again, those calculations were based on the more than $6 million of value in the gift reported by the college last summer. The Finance Subcommittee, with an eye on how much value the investment portfolio may have lost due to the global pandemic, recommended not considering another major appropriation from the gift, in part to preserve the $1.5 million that the School Committee long has discussed as a priority.
On Thursday, Greene, who recently returned to the School Committee after a two-year absence, offered a different perspective on that $1.5 million: The district should not preserve it.
"I would like to challenge the idea of keeping $1.5 million or even a million as an endowment," Greene said. "When it first came up, it was, as Jamie [Art] indicated, thinking about the fact that the Williamstown Elementary School had this endowment that came in conjunction with their building project.
"But I don't think the committee was really thinking about the fact that as a region, Mount Greylock had [Excess and Deficiency], which is not an endowment, but is a fund that you can tap for big capital expenditures when you know they're coming or in an emergency. We have an E&D. We have a very healthy E&D. We have almost a million dollars in the E&D — now, that's across three schools, so maybe it's more like $500,000 for Mount Greylock. And now we're going to ask the towns for a stabilization fund.
"If we have an E&D and we have a stabilization fund, we should not have a million dollars in an endowment. We should be spending those funds for things that are needed for the school. If we don't agree the fields are the thing that is needed, that's another topic."
Terranova, who has been a staunch defender of the idea of reserving $1.5 million for future needs — at one point going so far as to call the reserve account "sacred" — did not respond to Greene's analysis. He did, however, moments earlier push for the district to invest in the fields without making any reference to that reserve account.
"Four years ago, $5 million was given to us, OK?" Terranova said. "They said, ‘We're not going to tell you how to spend the $5 million,' but we all knew the $5 million was to augment things that were not reimbursed by the [Massachusetts School Building Authority]. I don't know exactly how much we have now, but we know we have $2.5 million to take care of the Brockfill turf field, and that's a no-brainer.
"We do have the money. It's in the Williams College fund. It was given to us to be used on non-reimbursable things. That's the way it is. That's it."
At Greene's suggestion, the committee agreed to have the Finance Subcommittee, which previously consumed the Phase 2 subcommittee, meet with members of the original Phase 2 group to talk about next steps.
"I think we should move forward," Terranova said at the end of the discussion. "One of these days, everyone is going to have to raise their hand and say what they want for the field project. There has to be a vote. 
"One of these days, all seven members have to vote on what we're going to do on the fields. That has to happen."
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