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School Committee members say they didn't know about move to Federal Building

Date: 10/20/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- Three members of the School Committee said on Oct. 14 they were never told by Mayor Domenic Sarno about the plans to move the central office of the School Department into the former Federal Building.

They also said they were not informed nor part of the action when the city bought two former parochial school to be the new home of two elementary schools.

Steve Lisauskas, the city's acting chief administration and finance officer, subsequently told Reminder Publications that he had first briefed the School Committee on Feb. 26 and Sarno said he had "reached out many times" to his fellow committee members on the project.

School Committee members Chris Collins, Michael Rogers and Antonette Pepe also expressed concern at the meeting that the professional development center was slated to move into the former Federal Building as well when the School Committee had voted to relocate the center into Duggan Middle School.

Collins, Rogers and Pepe met with Lisauskas and Executive Director of Parks, Buildings and Recreation Management Patrick Sullivan on Wednesday and questioned both men on the leasing arrangement.

Collins was concerned the leasing arrangement was not valid as it was signed by MassDevelopment, the new owners of the former Federal Building, on July 9. The contract had been negotiated by the Finance Control Board (FCB), which ended its administration of the city on June 30.

Collins questioned whether or not the agreement was in effect because it was not executed while the FCB was still in power. He stated the School Committee should seek outside counsel -- and not use the city's Law Department -- for an opinion on the lease.

At the School Committee meeting, Lisauskas admitted, "You raise a very good issue."

Pepe asked how the city could have negotiated a lease with MassDevelopment before it had bought the building and why the city hadn't bought the building itself when the price was just $2.5 million.

Lisauskas insisted the leasing arrangement was better for the city in the long run than buying the building and running the risk of "60 percent of it being mothballed."

Rogers and Lisauskas disagreed about the ultimate cost of the lease. Rogers contended that by rolling into the expense of renovations the rental fee would prove more expensive that the $10.86 per square foot rate. Rogers believes the actual rate will come closer to $15.

Lisauskas said utilities and janitorial fees would be "at cost" and the price was less than other commercial properties downtown.

"It's fair," he said of the lease and its costs.

When Collins asked Sullivan about why more space was being rented at the former Federal Building than what the School Committee had proposed, Sullivan told them about the relocation of the professional development center.

Sullivan added there was no money allocated to make the move to Duggan Middle School and School Superintendent Dr. Alan Ingram wanted "everyone under one roof."

Pepe said the fact that Ingram hadn't informed the School Committee was "absolutely ridiculous."

"What if we had never had this meeting?" Pepe asked. Rogers replied, "We would have never known [about the relocation of the professional development center]."

When asked if federal stimulus money could be used for the move to Duggan, Lisauskas explained that not all the stimulus funds have been forwarded to the city. He explained that some of the "funding" through the stimulus legislation was actually bonds at zero interest rates.

Collins noted that state law stipulates that if a school committee signs off on a lease for a facility, it is responsible for the rent. In this case, Collins maintained the city must pay for the rent for the first three years out of its own budget. The three School Committee members expressed concerns the city would adjust its budget accordingly and lower the School Department's budget to compensate for the cost of the rent.

In an interview conducted on Thursday, Sarno said he has received support for the move from downtown business owners.

Lisauskas said that while he would answer any questions about the lease and the move, he noted the decision had been made much earlier this year and questioned why now in October concerns were being raised.