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Southwick goes to the polls again for school vote

Date: 4/17/2012

April 18, 2012

By Debbie Gardner

SOUTHWICK — Not everyone gets two bites of the apple, but in the case of the Southwick-Tolland-Granville Regional School District, that second bite could be a lifeline for crowded, crumbling school buildings desperately in need of costly repairs.

On May 8, Southwick will go to the polls to cast a second vote on a debt exclusion override that would pay the town's portion of a $69.1 million school renovation project, a project that includes a nearly 60 percent — or $42 million — promised reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA).

Southwick was the only member of the three-town regional school district to reject the one-time debt exclusion assessment for the project during a January vote. Because all three towns did not agree to fund their portions of the project, the MSBA has the right to withdraw its reimbursement and offer money to the next school district that is waiting for funding help.

The May 8 vote — part of an already-scheduled town-wide election — will be for a slightly less costly project, one that, according to material presented on the website, reduces the overall price tag for the project by $2 million and the projected cost to Southwick taxpayers by 47 percent.

Residents got their first look at the revised school renovation project during an April 12 public informational meeting hosted by Southwick's Board of Selectmen, the Southwick-Tolland-Granville School Committee, the School Building Committee, School Superintendent Dr. Jay Barry, and representatives from the MSBA.

Residents who missed that meeting will have two more chances to review the revised project on April 25 and May 2. There will be two meetings per day in the superintendent's conference room on both dates — one at 9 a.m. and another at 6 p.m.

Sara Pieczarka, a parent with children at Woodland Elementary School and a member of the group that developed the Invest in Southwick website, told Reminder Publications last Thursday night's meeting was fairly well attended. She said many residents came with questions, and the officials hosting the meeting did their best to provide information and answers.

"They talked about reducing the scope of the project by nearly $2 million," Pieczarka said, adding that the Southwick-Tolland-Granville School Committee also offered to shift $250,000 from its Capital Improvement fund to the school project that could go toward reducing the overall cost. In addition, she said the Board of Selectmen indicated the budget allowance currently used to pay down a nearly completed town debt would be rolled over to the school project when the debt was completed, lessening the burden on taxpayers.

As originally proposed, the campus-wide renovations would have expanded the footprint of the current regional high school to accommodate middle school students, expanding the grades that attend that building to seven through 12. The current middle school, Powder Mill, would have been redesigned to house grades three through six and Woodland Elementary School would have been reconfigured to better match the needs of pre-kindergarten through grade two. Necessary repairs would also have been made at both Powder Mill and Woodland.

Information on indicates the project has been reconfigured so that "equipment and non-critical features have been removed from the project to reduce the financial impact to taxpayers without affecting the essence and educational value of the project."

Among those reductions are:

• The elimination of playground replacements, reconfiguration of two pre-kindergarten classrooms (existing will remain), and removal of chalk boards/replacement with white boards at Woodland Elementary School;

• The elimination of a new playground, the parking lot reconfiguration at Feeding Hill Road, the budget for new furniture for third and fourth graders relocated from Woodland (reutilize existing), and removal of chalk boards/replacement with white boards at Powder Mill School;

• The elimination/reduction of exterior paving and landscaping initiatives, including the paving of the student parking lot, the paving of the Woodland connector road, and the creation of a new exterior student area and a reduction of the equipment budget for the building to focus technology spending upon the building technology infrastructure for the new combined Middle-High School.

Despite these reductions, the following improvements will still be included in the project:

• All buildings will be brought up to date with regard to current building, safety and American with Disabilities Act accessibility codes;

• The existing roofs, windows, heating, plumbing and electrical systems in all three buildings will be replaced and/or renovated;

• The overcrowding issues at Woodland will be alleviated and the accreditation issues identified by New England Association of Schools and Colleges will be addressed so that the Middle/High School would still receive the science and middle school additions.

Under the revised project plans, the projected cost to Southwick is expected to be $23.2 million. For the average homeowner, the impact on his or her 2012 taxes is expected to be $209.

According to a letter from Barry posted on, the School Committee has already voted its intention to borrow money to fund the project, and a more favorable interest rate has been secured for the project.

He also emphasizes that "the MSBA is willing to extend the timeline on our grant to allow for this last chance" to approve the project and avoid absorbing the burden of making the much-needed repairs to the three schools entirely at taxpayer's expense.

Pieczarka said as a parent, she is naturally worried about the condition of the schools her children are attending, adding that, as the photos on show, "the are deteriorating around our children."

She said she understood the concern of residents on fixed incomes, noting that, in today's economy everyone is concerned about spending money and she herself doesn't "buy anything for my children or myself unless I have a coupon or it's on sale."

But, she continued, the larger issue behind the vote, namely what impact rejecting the school project again could have on Southwick in the future, also concerns her.

"This affects all of us," Pieczarka said. "This affects the sustainability of our community. People are not going to want to move here if we don't take care of our schools."

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