NORTH ADAMS -- The reasons for opposing the proposed $29.7 million Conte School Renovation Project vary among those who started the petition that put its funding on a special April 30 ballot, but they all agree the nearly 100-year-old building should no longer be an educational facility.
"I’m very concerned about the state of education in this community," Hulda Jowett, one of the three co-signers who initiated the petition, said Thursday. "I’m not an advocate of the MCAS tests, but they can tell you something about our educational system. For the 2011-2012 scores, Sullivan was ranked 852 out of 890 elementary schools in the state. Brayton was ranked 807 and Greylock was 584. Williamstown Elementary School was ranked 139. We need to do something about this."
A $30 million school, wired with the latest technology and built to the current pedagogical standards, won’t fix the educational deficits in the city’s schools, she said.
"I went to high school there in the 1950s and it didn’t work as a school then," Jowett said. "My son went there for middle school and it didn’t work then. It will not work now. The traffic patterns around that school are terrible and there’s not enough space outdoors."
City Councilor John Barrett III, who joined Jowett in a meeting with the Transcript on Thursday, said he believes the building is better suited for economic development opportunities.
"While I applaud all the parents and educators who are for this project, I opposed it because I see it taking away a potential property in the downtown," he said. "When Sprague Electric left, we didn’t jump at the first idea that was put out there. There were many ideas for the reuse of those buildings, including a jail. We have to be patient."
Barrett also wants the city to "go back to the drawing board" to find a solution that solves the school district’s overcrowding issues and addresses the numerous building issues at Greylock and Sullivan elementary schools.
"Greylock is in just as bad of shape as Sullivan is," he said. "I think we need to take the time and look at other options. I think we can come up with a solution of two smaller schools that can be built for the same price tag."
Former City Councilor Robert Moulton Jr. said he helped sponsor the petition because he doesn’t believe the project is "the right project" or "right for North Adams."
"I was still on the [city] council in 2009 when we closed that school. I think it can be a viable part of the downtown, but not as a school," he said Thursday during a telephone interview. "You can find a good example of an elementary school over in Williamstown. We could build the same type of school. They put that school up for $14 million."
Williamstown Elementary School, which opened in 2002, was designed by Margo Jones Architects, the same architect and firm behind the city’s school building project.
Moulton also believes the School Building Committee wasn’t diligent about including the public in the planning process.
"I don’t think people have been included," he said. "I would like to see all the options from the start. I don’t remember seeing the options until a decision was made. Maybe I missed something, but I remember being surprised when Conte was named as one of the two choices. I didn’t hear anything about plans or meetings."
Katherine Montgomery, who also sponsored the petition, said she sees the project as a poor investment and has many concerns about putting an elementary school at Conte.
"You can invest $30 million in Conte, but you’ll still have a bad location on a small site," she said Thursday during a telephone interview. Not only does she take issue with the speed of traffic on East Main Street, but she also has concerns about the size of the allotted outdoor play space.
"Two half-court basketball courts and an area with playground equipment is not enough space," she said. "I was shocked when I heard one of the architects speak about the space as being adequate. They can claim that it’s more space than they have at Greylock and Sullivan, but I believe they aren’t looking at the adjacent fields that the schools use. Anybody with eyes in their head can figure out that there is more room to play at Sullivan and Greylock."
Montgomery, who attended many of the School Building Committee’s planning meetings and public hearings, said she feels that its members failed to listen to community members who spoke out against Conte.
"Had they actually polled the community before they started planning this, they would have realized this is an unpopular idea," she said.