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No clear next step for schools

Date: 2/8/2012

Feb. 8, 2012

By Debbie Gardner

SOUTHWICK — Though two towns voted “yes,” and only one voted “no,” to a recent school project, that single “no” was powerful enough to stop planned upgrades to the regional school district’s educational facilities in their tracks.

Southwick’s rejection of a proposed debt exclusion to fund proposed renovations and additions to three schools in the Southwick-Tolland-Granville Regional School District means the towns may now be facing the prospect of footing much-needed repairs to these buildings without the aid of a generous reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA).

The vote in Southwick was 1,141 in favor of the debt exclusion, 1,390 opposed to fund the estimated $29.1 million that was the town’s portion of the total $71.8 million project cost. Town Clerk Michelle Hill confirmed that approximately 40 percent of the town’s registered voters took part in the special vote.

“That’s pretty high [for this type of an issue],” Hill noted.

The proposed 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.

The MSBA was offering a $42.6 million grant toward the project, provided all three towns in the regional school district agreed to fund their portions of the cost.

According to figures in an informational packet about the proposed renovation project, approval of the debt exclusion would have added approximately $394 a year in taxes to the average homeowner’s bill for the next 25 years.

“We were very disappointed. We were so excited about being part of a new high school and new labs and new technology,” Kathryn Martin, Granville Town Administrator said. She reported that 217 voters approved and 120 rejected what would have been a Proposition 21/2 override in her town. The total number of registered voters for Granville is 1,100.

Martin said the town had voted to join the regional school district last fall both as a cost-saving measure and to improve the education options for its children. She said the town “didn’t really see an impact” from the additional school costs as it planned to “put aside” what it had normally spent on school costs to offset the renovations.

For Granville, approval would have added approximately $329 annually to the average homeowner’s bill during the 25-year life of the bond.

“I never really thought Southwick wouldn’t vote for it. I guess I was wrong,” Martin added.

Susan Voudren, Tolland Town Clerk, said her community also approved the override by a vote of 64 in favor and 24 opposed. The total of 88 participants represented only one-eighth of the town’s registered voters, but, according to Voudren, the measure needed only a simple majority of the total number of voters participating to pass.

Voudren noted that the tax impact for an average homeowner in Tolland would have been approximately $125 per year or approximately $10 a month.

“I heard many people say our children our future and someone paid for me to go to school,” she noted.

Voudren added that she had been told that, “in another year, if they do not improve the size of the high school, it will lose accreditation.”

Dr. Jay Barry, superintendent of the Southwick-Tolland Granville Regionals School District told Reminder Publications that accreditation for the high school was more of a “reputational” issue.

Without upgrades at the high school, we may or may not face warning status with one of the standards, but accreditation as a whole will hopefully be granted,” Barry said.

Christina Strain, a Southwick resident who supported the school renovation plan, said she was “shocked” the measure didn’t pass.

She said in addition to an overcrowding issue, the Southwick-Tolland–Granville Regional High School has many infrastructure issues that need to be addressed.

Among those issues are heating and plumbing systems that don’t function properly, windows and doors that don’t open or close correctly and a leaking roof.

“They had to cancel classes for a half day [recently] because of a water issue,” Strain said, adding that the first grades at Woodland had to relocate to the library not long ago because the heat wasn’t working in their wing of the school.

Strain noted that these issues were not a case of delinquent school maintenance — “[the MSBA] gave us an extra percent on this reimbursement because the schools had been maintained so well” — but simply a factor of repairs and renovations that are required after “a certain number of years.”

She also noted that postponing work on these schools, something that has happened in the past — a proposal to make some of these repairs was rejected at Special Town Meeting five years ago and “didn’t make it to the ballot” — is hurting the school system and ultimately, the town’s appeal to families.

‘It was overcrowding that got us in the limelight [with the MSBA] and also the infrastructure [issues],” Strain noted, adding that the town still needs to meet state standards for a safe school.

She also added that the town had been “waiting 10 years” to have access to this type of grant from the state and “people have to wrap their brains around the fact that this is a big project and it has to be done.”

According to James Vincent, a member of the School Building Committee for the Southwick Tolland Granville Regional School District, following voter rejection of the debt exclusion is Southwick, the committee was planning to first meet with the project manager and then, communicate with the MSBA to determine what, if any steps the group can take at this point to continue the project.

Barry said the necessary repairs and code upgrades at the schools “still need to be addressed.” He added, “We do not yet know about waiting periods or the timing of a new application” for the project.

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