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Mount Greylock School Committee Holds Off on Track
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
10:36PM / Thursday, January 12, 2023
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee voted 6-1 on Thursday to put off building a track with a new multisport grass field for at least another year.
"We're going to build a good project," Carrie Greene said. "It's just going to be one year later. Instead of being ready spring 2024, it will be ready spring 2025."
Greene brought the one-year delay idea to her colleagues from the district's Field and Track Committee, on which she serves.
As she explained in a special meeting earlier this month, the delay was suggested because the estimated cost of the improvement to the middle-high school campus far outstrips the available funds in a capital gift that the district received from Williams College.
Greene instead asked her colleagues to authorize the creation of a fund-raising committee for the field and track project.
That vote passed, 6-1, with Steven Miller, a frequent and outspoken advocate for moving forward with the field project, voting in the minority.
"While it may not seem that bad, one more year, we've done that 'one more year' many times," Miller said.
The School Committee has discussed the possibility of tapping its excess and deficiency (free cash), tuition and School Choice reserve funds. But Greene told the committee on Thursday that the district has received strong signals from member towns Lanesborough and Williamstown that they would rather see those reserves applied toward the operating budget than used on a capital project.
"Prior to the discussions with the town, we thought the reserve funds would be appropriate," Greene said. "But we're just getting a really different message from our towns that they need us to save those in terms of bringing down our budget requests to the towns."
She also said at least one of the member towns told district officials that its town hall could not support a bond to pay for the balance of the cost of the field and track project. Greene reminded her colleagues that each town is facing a major bond question for a public safety building – a new firehouse in Williamstown and a new police station in Lanesborough.
Julia Bowen asked Greene whether the Field and Track Committee had any sense of how the district could raise an estimated $1.6 million in time to put the project out to bid this October, as the project committee has recommended.
"Do we have any leads?" Bowen asked. "Finding grants can take a while. And soliciting support and asking people to help pay for this is not an easy process. You don't have to tell me names, but do you have ideas of people who might be willing to support this.?
Greene said she has reached out to colleagues in school committees across the state and gotten leads on potential federal and state funding sources, adding that the district would have to reach out to the area's legislative representatives to enlist their support.
She also said district Business Manager Joe Bergeron, who also serves on the Field and Track Committee, has been keeping a list of potential funding sources that have come up in the committee's brainstorming sessions on the subject.
"We've been gearing up for this behind the scenes for a while," Greene said. "We were planning to fund-raise even if the project went to bid now. So this is not a totally new conversation. It's just a different context."
Another member of the Field and Track Committee, John Benzinger of the district's owners project manager, Skanska USA, advised the School Committee that it can expect the price of the project to go up during the delay that the panel authorized on Thursday.
"We are projecting escalation for all our clients," Benzinger said. "It's been crazy the last couple of years. We've been doing 8 percent the last couple of years. Escalation for the last 50 years has been 2 or 3 percent a year. The last couple of years have been crazy.
"We have been seeing a downward spiral on escalation recently. I'd project 6 percent escalation on that $4.125 million figure [Greene] gave you for next year's dollars."
Miller noted that that would be an additional $240,000 cost for the project and said that the fund-raising efforts had better make at least that much money as a baseline.
Miller also suggested that the School Committee take a stand on Thursday that it would build the field and track whether or not the fund-raising efforts pan out.
"I would propose Plan B is we build it no matter what, and if that means we spend down the endowment and spend down some of the reserve funds, that's what we do," Miller said. "I think it would be good for the community to have such strong language right now."
Greene and Bergeron each argued against that tactic.
"If that was the vote tonight, we would be indicating we could fund this project without anyone's help," Bergeron said. "The reality is the way all costs are increasing across all three schools and as we look at our budget for FY 24 and with our towns, early requests to limit our increases in our asks of them, I'm not sure how, if I was asked to recommend an outlay and a breakdown, I'm not sure what I would do.
"I would need to cut off numerous other things at the knees to make that possible. What we're trying to do now is tap into funding sources that will not force us to sacrifice in those other areas."
Shortly thereafter, the committee held its latest vote in the long saga of the athletic field improvements. With last night's decision, the Field and Track Committee will form a fund-raising committee, with plans to pull in members of the towns with fund-raising experience.
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