NORTH ADAMS -- On Tuesday, April 30, city voters will decide the fate of the proposed $29.7 million Conte School Renovation Project during a special election held in conjunction with the special state primary election.
Ballots for the special city election will have two choices: yes, in favor of the bonding order, or no, not in favor of the bonding order. Although the bond order is for the full $29.7 million, the city will be responsible for 20 percent, or $6.5 million. The remaining 80 percent, or $23.2 million, will be paid by the state School Building Authority (MSBA).
"The last remaining piece for us is for the local share of the project's costs to be implemented," MSBA Chief Operating Officer Matthew Donovan said in a telephone interview Friday. "If the funding is passed, the process will take its course from there."
He added, "What we're concerned with is the project at hand. What is in front of the voters of North Adams is the project our board approved."
Should the bond issue fail to pass, MSBA spokesman Daniel Collins reiterated "the solution would most likely be very similar to our failed vote policy concept."
That policy states that should funding for a proposed project fail within the 120-day deadline [from the time of the MSBA's project scope and budget approval], the district will have 10 business days to provide an explanation of why the vote failed and a plan and remedy for the failed vote. The policy also states that "a failed vote likely will result in the school district being required to submit a new ‘Statement of Interest' to the MSBA and await an invitation from the MSBA to enter the eligibility period."
Donovan declined to elaborate on how quickly the city would be able to get another invitation from the MSBA.
Proponents of the renovation project, which would turn the nearly 100-year-old building into a new K-7 elementary school replacing Sullivan Elementary School, say it is the best option and that further delay would lead to having to re-enter the process and jeopardize the MSBA's funding commitment.
"I keep hearing that we need to ‘go back to the drawing board' on this. We've done the planning process twice," Glenn Maloney, president of the North Adams Chamber of Commerce, said Friday, referring to May 2011 when the MSBA issued a letter to the city addressing concerns about the public vetting process.
In turn, the city asked architect Margo Jones to re-examine the city's options. The result included six options, including two designs for Sullivan Elementary School. The School Building Committee ultimately selected Conte as its preferred option, after MSBA officials indicated they would only support a single school project, not two.
Maloney, along with Mayor Richard J. Alcombright, North Adams Public School Superintendent James E. Montepare and Lynette Ritland Bond, chairwoman of Friends of the North Adams Schools, met with the Transcript on Friday.
"When you look at the options we had, many of the choices also had many unreimbursed costs with them -- site work or relocation of students during construction," Ritland Bond said.
Alcombright added that making repairs to Sullivan and Greylock schools would not be simple or more cost effective.
"It's a different type of bond and would cost over $10 million. We'd have to amortize it out over a shorter period of time and most likely have to use a debt-exclusion override to pay for it," he said.
Montepare said that while some believe the Conte building would be better suited for private development, he doesn't believe any developer could get a good return on the necessary investment in the building.
However, opponents of the project say the city shouldn't rush into the project just because the MSBA funding is available.
"In 1963, the city participated in the state's ‘urban renewal' project because the money was available and we lost the south side of Main Street. At the same time, Northampton rejected the funds and they still have their historic buildings," Hulda Jowett, who co-sponsored a citizens petition against the funding, said Thursday.
City Councilor John Barrett III, who joined Jowett during a meeting with the Transcript on Thursday, said he's concerned about the impact the project will have on the city's finances.
"The city's in a negative cash position," he said. "We're going to have to replace the city's public safety complex within the next few years. We also just heard that the city's financial situation will impact its borrowing rate. We're not going to be able to do any future projects without a debt exclusion override."
In addition, Jowett and Barrett also believe that the district could still secure a two-project plan, building two smaller schools for the same cost.
"Why should we spend twice the amount of money, when we could build two new schools for the same price or for less?," Jowett said, noting that a similar sized model-school had been built in Burlington for $16.6 million. The school, which came in under budget by $6 million, was similar to one proposed for a 310-student school at Greylock which was estimated to cost $27.5 million.
Meanwhile, City Clerk Marilyn Gomeau cautioned that the Conte special election being held at the same time as the state primary is an unique situation.
"We've never done a duel election before," said Gomeau. "Consequently, it's going to be different for voters when they come in the door to check in."
Gomeau said residents who want to vote in each will check in at two separate tables and receive two ballots, one state, one city.
Transcript reporter Phil Demers contributed to this report.