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Date: 2/17/2009

Classrooms' cost cracks city's nest egg

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD -- On Feb. 12, City Councilor Christopher Keefe, chair of the council's Ad Hoc Committee on Juniper Park, called a meeting to set the story straight about the ongoing negotiations between Westfield State College (WSC) and the School Department over the fate of the K-5 school.

The city has been renting the building at 715 Western Ave. from WSC for over 40 years; however, WSC is now requiring one-quarter of the building for academic and administrative space, forcing fourth and fifth graders to be moved to South Middle School.

"Most of the rumors are true," Keefe said, adding that Mayor Michael Boulanger, also chair of the School Committee, made him privy to the information discussed during executive session.

Keefe explained that the city currently leases the building from WSC for $454,000 per year. He added that last year, WSC made an initial offer of $820,000 per year for five years but have been bartered down to $327,000 per year for the next three years.

Boulanger said those costs exclude expenses such as heat, janitorial services, plowing and other maintenance.

Keefe noted that the latest offer is only for three-quarters of the building and that it would cost the School Department an additional $215,000 plus expenses for the final quarter of the building. He said WSC wanted a "premium" for the remaining quarter of the building.

Kenneth Lemanski, vice president of Advancement and College Relations, declined an interview with Reminder Publications but issued the following statement: "Westfield State College remains mindful of the difficult financial times all educators face today. The College will continue to respond openly and supportively to whatever solutions the School Board identifies as necessary to maintain its academic priorities at Juniper Park as long as Westfield State College students bear no additional costs.

"Our value is being able to offer college-bound students a comprehensive four-year education at a very affordable price -- and we can do that because parents have already paid to support higher education when they pay their taxes," he continued. "We are obligated to respect and be good stewards of our parents' investment and appreciate the understanding from the community we have received throughout this process."

David Pelletier, father of three students attending Juniper Park Elementary School, said, "Where we are [today] and where we started [has come] full circle. There seems to be more smoke and mirrors now more than ever. They [WSC] shouldn't be in the business of throwing little kids out on the street."

Keefe explained that aside from the Ad Hoc Committee meetings, the City Council has been unable to participate in the negotiations.

"The School Committee is not entertaining suggestions," City Councilor Mary O'Connell, also member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Juniper Park, said.

"We're pulling up the wagon here," Keefe said. "By making this a three-year lease, they [the School Committee] have made this all their game. The City Council only has the power to write the check. They've not been responsive to the public and I'm glad to be here for parents to address their concerns."

Boulanger told Reminder Publications that no agreement between WSC and the School Department has been reached yet.

"We're trying to find the best option available for the kids at the best price we can afford," he said. "We're open to any suggestions from anybody."

Boulanger said he hopes to reach an agreement at the School Committee's next meeting on Feb. 23 at 5:30 p.m.

"Some decision has to be made because it's getting late and we're getting in the budget season and adjustments will need to be made to the budget [if students are moved from Juniper Park to South Middle School]," he said.