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School Committee, selectmen continue fight over funds

Date: 10/1/2012

By Chris Maza

WILBRAHAM — The Wilbraham Board of Selectmen and the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee remain at odds over monies received through the school district's lease of the Memorial School building to the Diocese of Springfield, however, steps are being taken to move the discussion forward.

The Memorial School building has housed Cathedral High School students and staff since the start of the 2011 school year after the school was hit hard by the June 1, 2011 tornado at a cost of $360,000 per year.

The building, which is owned by the town, is being leased to the district for $1. According to the School Committee, the plan is to turn the building back over to the twon in 2014, along with any revenues.

In the meantime, the Selectmen have argued that revenues from the lease agreement with the diocese should go directly to the town.

The selectmen met with the School Committee at its Sept. 25 meeting to discuss the issue and attempt to gain a better understanding of where both sides stand.

Selectman James Thompson said that he felt all money earned through the lease of a Wilbraham-owned building should go toward the benefit of Wilbraham students.

"When I started to look at this, I looked at the intent of the lease, the spirit of the lease and why the town of Wilbraham rents its buildings out for $1 and the answer is to benefit he children and to educate our children," Thompson said. "I would suggest that as you discuss amongst yourselves the decision, that you look at that same spirit too. From my perspective, that spirit is taking the vast majority of revenue from the lease of Memorial School and reinvesting it in Wilbraham buildings and capital improvements there."

Selectman Robert Russell stated that the board was willing to explore different options in how to accomplish the goal Thompson outlined.

"We're here with the intention of looking out for the taxpayers of Wilbraham. We're very flexible in how that gets accomplished," he said. "There's a lot of different ways that money can get spent to accomplish that. We've proposed a few in some discussions that we've had like the infrastructure build-out, the backbone you're going to need for your telecommunications. Those are areas we are very much in favor of."

School Committee Chair D. John McCarthy asked the selectmen to clarify their position on the possibility of placing a certain percentage of the revenue into the Minnechaug Capitalization Fund, which is designed to act as a reserve through which the district can make improvements on the new high school building as needed to ensure its longevity.

"One thing we seem to have a mutual agreement on is that we should commit a large portion of this money to the Minnechaug Capital Fund," he said. "Of course, the reason we want to do that is because we have a beautiful building and there was some criticism that we didn't do the capital improvements needed [on the old Minnechaug], so we needed a new high school."

Thompson stated that he would "of course" be in favor of that.

School Committee member Marc Ducey also suggested the use some of the revenues to pay back the approximately $100,000 the district owes the town early.

"We thought about that as well," Board of Selectmen chair Robert Boilard said. "It's almost like putting money from one pocket to another. It's already Wilbraham money, per se, so it would be like paying Wilbraham with Wilbraham's money."

School Committee member Peter Salerno argued that the town of Wilbraham is also getting a very significant amount of the total revenues from the lease, which could equal $1.4 million if the diocese extends the lease through 2015.

"This issue is what is fair, from what I'm hearing," he said. "It's pretty clear from what we know that Cathedral has asked for an extension through June 30, 2014 and it may go beyond that ... Two more years of gross income, assuming it goes through 2014 and 2015, it would be another $721,000 that would solely be the town's. The proceeds through June 30 [2014], is like $680,000, which would be split 75 [percent toward Wilbraham and] 25 [percent toward Hampden].

"Overall, all told, if we go through June 30 of 2015, Wilbraham would be appropriately benefiting by $1.23 million of lease costs and Hampden would get $170,000. If you talk fairness if [the lease] goes through 2015, Wilbraham would have received 88 percent of the whole benefit of that lease," he concluded.

Thompson retorted, criticizing Salerno's numbers.

"You present a position using numbers that you can move and use a different way," he said. "If you want to look at how the money is split, in the first year, the lease is $360,000 and 20 percent goes toward Hampden; Second year, the same thing. Where you start to smooth those numbers out is years three and four, which may never exist. If we knew [years] three and four and five were going to occur, then we could have that discussion, but we don't know if that is going to occur."