I am writing this as a parent, resident, North Adams School Building Committee member and city councilor. These are my words and not representative of the entire School Building Committee.
There have been articles about where the North Adams School Building Committee is concerning their decision on the Silvio O. Conte School renovations. The committee members have attended far more meetings than previous schools building committees have done. The consultants said we have reviewed and discussed our options for this project more than most projects they have worked on.
One of the criticisms I have heard is that Conte is becoming the most expensive school of all the choices. This is false. There were higher-cost options including renovating Sullivan.
You may have read recently about a wall near the Conte School that will need to be repaired, adding to the cost of the school. This wall is owned by the city and will need to be corrected if Conte is renovated or not since it’s at risk of falling on private property.
Some are saying it was a surprise that there is a fuel tank underground at the school. The city has known about the tank since it was installed in the 1970s and is still used today. Whether we have chosen Conte or not, this fuel tank would still have to be removed or replaced before anything else could be done with this historic building. These are additional expenses, but it’s work that needs to be done no matter what school project we picked.
As any large-scale public project nears the final schematics, site plans and testing, additional expenses will come up. This is expected. That allows the committee to decide what areas can be trimmed to bring the number back down.
Sullivan school was going to require a huge retaining wall and extensive ADA compliant paths, ramps and elevators due to how it’s built into a hill. I am sure the original price estimate on those elements would also have increased as they examined more closely the grounds and final costs.
Let’s not forget that if Greylock or Sullivan were renovated, it would have displaced students to another temporary location costing an additional $1 million not covered by the state.
When this started three years ago, the committee had no intention of making Conte its first choice. It wasn’t until the consultants -- who are made up of engineers, strategic educators, architects and designers -- evaluated all the options. Conte was not the most expensive, but it came out in the lead in other categories making it the best option. The city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for studies from these experts. We would not be doing due diligence if we ignored their experience and knowledge, along with listening to the community.
Of all the public meetings and forums, we have had less than a couple dozen citizens who have spoken out against this choice. I’ve heard from far more in favor of it, including support from the majority of the School Committee, School Building Committee and city councilors. I believe a high majority of the public supports the diverse School Building Committee -- made up of parents, teachers, contractors, principals and elected representatives -- in their decision.
One person said that I may be favoring this project because it’s close to the downtown which will benefit my business. That is the farthest thing from the truth. I would get more business if Conte was turned into high-end condos or professional offices rather than a school with young children.
Another rumor is that the city wants to keep Conte as a school because it may lose the entire property deeded from the Drury family a century ago if it’s not an educational facility. This is false, and is not part of why we selected this project. If Conte was in private ownership, taxes could be collected on it which would be an incentive for the city to not keep it a school. Plus, no one knows at this time if the Drury deed can still be enforced.
My decision is more about where I would have sent my children. Conte would have been my last choice due to its condition, outdated infrastructure and technology. I am confident it would be my first choice once renovated. Conte is located near the library and health and social service offices that benefit the parents and their children. This will be a new school inside, with different layout of rooms, energy efficient solutions and the highest technology that any of our schools offer, while still preserving a noble exterior prior generations looked up to.
I’d like to paraphrase last year’s Drury class president and valedictorian Max Quinn who attended Conte in middle school, was on this committee and is now studying to be a doctor at Brown University. He said no matter which school he went to, once he walked through the doors, it became his school to be proud of. If Max accomplished high standards and felt that way about Conte when he was there in its shabby condition, imagine how students will feel when they walk into the new Silvio O. Conte School.