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Memorial School to be returned to town

Date: 5/16/2013

By Chris Maza

WILBRAHAM — The Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) and the Board of Selectmen came to an agreement that will return control of the Memorial School building on Main Street to the town.

"This agreement resolves the stewardship of the Memorial School and assures that it will be available for Wilbraham students if needed in the future. More importantly, the agreement sets the foundation for Board [of Selectmen] and [School] Committee cooperation and collaboration in studying and meeting the ongoing and future needs of the school system," a press release provided to Reminder Publications by the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee read.

While to town owns the building, HWRSD has leased it at a cost of $1 per year since 1994. Memorial School was closed as part of a district restructuring effort in 2010, but HWRSD continued to lease the school and began renting it for $300,000 per year to the Diocese of Springfield as the temporary home of Cathedral High School, whose building was heavily damaged in the June 1, 2011 tornado.

However, the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee had been in discussions for months regarding the revenue from the renting of the building. It was the board's position that because the school is town property, the funds received should go to the town as opposed to the district.

Addressing the issue at the Annual Town Meeting on May 13, Selectman James Thompson called the agreement "a very fair resolution," adding, "Both the School Committee and the town of Wilbraham negotiated in good faith. Negotiations bogged down for a while but were finally successful."

According to the new agreement, signed last week, as of July 1, the lease between the town and HWRSD will be terminated. A new rental agreement between the Board of Selectmen and the Diocese must be struck and the revenue related to that agreement will belong solely to the town and "applied to needs of the town of Wilbraham" at the selectmen's discretion.

School Committee Chair D. John McCarthy said the rent received from the Diocese was used to plug holes in the school budget during what has been a difficult budgeting process, adding that he had concerns about not having that funding at the schools' disposal next fiscal year.

"We could have a hole in next year's budget," he said, adding that there was already a $1.6 million shortfall in fiscal year 2014 and even despite the use of more than $600,000 in monies from the Emergency and Deficiency Fund, several cuts are expected to be made.

Previously, Superintendent M. Martin O'Shea confirmed to Reminder Publications that the district anticipated cutting back by approximately nine full time equivalent teaching positions at the elementary, middle and high school levels, in addition to several support positions.

McCarthy added it was his hope that rental funds would be used to the benefit of the schools.

"The district doesn't own any of the schools except for the high school," he said. "Under other contractual obligations, the town has to pay for capital improvements to the schools that cost more than $5,000. I hope the money will be used for that, though technically, they could use it for whatever they deemed necessary."

The agreement also allows HWRSD the option to use the building again in the future, provided they can prove a need within the three years of Cathedral vacating the school.

"We've made a commitment to the school district that at such time as Cathedral leaves the school, the district would have the first right of refusal with a lease similar to the lease that existed before," Thompson said.

Under the pact, the district must also provide a plan of building needs by June 30, 2014. McCarthy said that process is already underway.

He also said a study stated it would be likely that HWRSD would need the building in the future, despite the fact that enrollment has been on the decline. O'Shea had said previously that three of the teaching positions scaled back next fiscal year would be a result of a drop in student enrollment.

"We hired a company to do a demography study and one of their recommendations was to keep the Memorial School under our control," he said. "The study showed that as older people begin selling their homes, younger families with children will be moving into town. We've already talked about the prospect of using Memorial School again."