Several weeks ago, the city of North Adams and our public school system were approved for a $29.7 million school building project. This project is to renovate and restore Conte School to a beautiful new facility that will house 310 kindergarten through grade-7 students, mostly from Sullivan School.
This project was begun in 2007 by former Mayor John Barrett III with a vote of the City Council to fund a study that would look at the needs of our school system. This study analyzed our aging school facilities, most specifically Greylock and Sullivan elementary schools. Since that time, comprehensive analysis and study has been undertaken through the North Adams School Building Committee (SBC), the School Committee, the administration and a team of architects and project managers. Additionally, this process has been closely overseen by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA).
The SBC has been working on this project for several years and they consist of a diverse group of people, most of who are on the committee by design of an MSBA template. This template assures that those selected for the SBC act in the best interests of the school district without political motivation or influence. This committee consists of the superintendent, the mayor, building inspector, school business manager, school facilities director, a principal, a school committee member, a city councilor, a student, parents, an engineer, a former member of city school building committees and several others.
This group has met over the past 18 months in many open and public forums to discuss new building/renovation alternatives presented to them throughout the process. These discussions centered on renovations at Greylock, Sullivan and Conte schools. Some people have stated that the process was not transparent, however all meetings were posted and accessible. All meetings were well-attended by committee members, and at times, School Committee members, city councilors, the press and members of the public were present.
The SBC looked at each and every proposal objectively and independently, taking into consideration the educational and fiscal dynamics of each.
The SBC has voted on two separate occasions for a renovation of Conte School, one that would breathe life back into a beautiful historic structure, both academically and socially. This neighborhood school would also bring students, faculty and parents into the downtown, adding to our efforts of revitalization of the corridor. In addition, the School Committee unanimously endorsed the renovation of Conte as the preferred option for our school system and the students it serves.
The MSBA has unanimously approved this project through a vote of their board. The city needs to be very thankful to the MSBA board, State Treasurer Steve Grossman and MSBA Executive Director Jack McCarthy for their support and guidance throughout this process. The North Adams Historical Commission as well as the Massachusetts Historical Commission has also endorsed this project.
This project will help with the overcrowding that currently exists in our school system. While some might say that our schools are holding fewer students than they did many years ago, I would assert that this is not about the number of students, but rather the lack of space within our buildings. The past 20 years have seen significant changes in the way we deliver services (both mandated and designed) to our students. Programs that utilize a great deal of space -- rooms for special needs students, full day kindergarten, pre-K education, remediation rooms and our 6th and 7th grades -- are now in buildings previously used only to facilitate K-5 education. Our schools are not overpopulated by students, but rather overcrowded due to physical classroom and building capacity.
There seem to be concerns about the Conte School location, that it is not conducive to younger students walking to and from school. The SBC has vetted this situation, and with diligence in traffic control, snow removal and additional bussing (most specifically for the younger students), this location should not be problematic.
While some think we cannot afford to take this project on, I would argue that we need to find a way and we will. The MSBA has guaranteed us the highest reimbursement rate (80 percent) that they currently allow on school building projects. The next step is to get City Council approval to borrow the money to move this project forward. If this is not approved, we lose our Conte project and possibly go back to the end of the line with MSBA only to apply again in the future. I would suggest that at some point, we would get approved again, but let's asks ourselves: What would the project costs be 10 years from now? What would the reimbursement levels then be?
As a city, we need to take advantage of what comes our way, and this current project is timely and we need to strike while the iron is hot, both fiscally and academically.
At the end of the day, this project, slated to cost $29.7 million, will end up costing the City $6.5 million (our 20 percent share). And while this is a sizeable amount of money, what will that number be five or 10 years from now? What will we have to invest in our school buildings over time (failing heating systems, inadequate plumbing, etc.) to keep them functional? How many more times can this city afford to kick the can down the road?
The absolute reality is that each year, this city builds a budget and I would argue that the only investment dollars in that budget are the dollars that we put into education. Whether that is in programming or infrastructure, providing resources to educate our children is an investment like no other. I will be bringing a fiscal plan to the City Council in January with great hope that they will approve the funding package and allow the Conte School project to move forward.
The Conte School project has been approved by the MSBA, the SBC, endorsed by the School Committee and in January, the City Council will be asked to vote to fund the project. As mayor and chairman of the School Committee, I fully endorse this effort and remind all that investment in our school system and investment in our children is truly investment in our city.