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Williamstown Select Board Weighs in on Mount Greylock Capital Project
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:17PM / Wednesday, May 27, 2020
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The statement crafted by the Williamstown Select Board at the suggestion of Hugh Daley, upper right, at Tuesday's meeting.


Town Manager Jason Hoch, top left, and the members of the Select Board participate in Tuesday's meeting.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Tuesday voted 3-1-1 to advise the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee to continue holding onto funds previously earmarked for long-term maintenance needs at the middle-high school.
 
Hugh Daley asked his colleagues to make such a statement, arguing that the board had an obligation to do what it can to preserve a fund intended to protect local taxpayers against future expenses at the recently renovated and rebuilt school.
 
Daley said the discussion at the School Committee's most recent meeting indicated that its members were inclined to spend down the proceeds from a 2016 capital gift from Williams College without regard for preserving $1.5 million for future repairs, going back on a commitment previously made by the School Committee.
 
"The reason that this has intensity on it is the decision to spend this money can be made at any upcoming School Committee meeting," Daley said. "This money would not be available for these projects had the School Building Committee not said, let's put it into this fund."
 
Daley took his colleagues back through the history of how the School Committee and its building committee previously had discussed the $5 million Williams College gift.
 
At one point, he said, it was considered as a source to pay for a new parking lot at the school, but the School Building Committee was able to work that expense into the project's $64 million budget; that allowed the School Committee to say it would leave $1.5 million in Williams College's endowment to fund future expenses — similar to a $1 million gift that has been used for extraordinary expenses at Williamstown Elementary School.
 
"The Williams gift would have had to pay for this parking lot [but for the decision to wrap it into the bond]," Daley said. "There would be no discussion about what's happening to the money. What's happening now is the [School] Committee is wavering on its commitment to protecting Williamstown and Lanesborough taxpayers, protecting the investment that they made into this fund."
 
Daley originally asked his colleagues to send a letter to the School Committee expressing the Select Board's desire to preserve the $1.5 million. Ultimately, he settled for a non-binding resolution to be entered into the minutes of Monday's meeting that read: "During the current period of financial uncertainty, it is the sense of the Select Board that the portion of the Williams gift intended to fund the building maintenance fund to provide for the long-term maintenance of the Mt. Greylock School should be preserved for that purpose."
 
None of his colleagues said they disagreed with the idea of saving the funds for future expenses.
 
But Jane Patton argued that the letter Daley proposed broke with the Select Board's precedent of avoiding votes on issues that are not directly in its purview.
 
"It's always better to spend less money, we all get that," Patton said. "I feel like there are often times when we talk about the other branches of government in town — the school and the fire district — we're pretty quick to say, 'Oh, we can't tell people what to do. We can't get involved in this. That's not our thing. We are the Select Board. This is our lane.'
 
"We have been, to me, frustratingly reluctant to leave our lane at times when, depending on where you're at on the topic, it might make more sense. … In principle, managing this money as best as they can and not spending it down is fine. It's not fine if what they're talking about spending it down on is something that you don't agree with. I'm not saying that's the case; I'm just saying I'm a little surprised that, after so much time of, 'Not our thing, not our lane, not our job,' we're suggesting that the Select Board come in with a pretty strong recommendation for how they should manage these funds."
 
Daley argued that since the appropriation to the Mount Greylock Regional School District represents about 60 percent of the town's budget, the fiscal responsibility of the district is squarely in the lane of the Select Board.
 
"Ultimately, we set the tax rate," Daley said. "We're the one people call when they say taxes are getting out of control. It's [Town Manager Jason Hoch's] budget that gets squeezed by the education budget."
 
Patton ended up being the lone nay vote against the resolution the board crafted toward the end of a two-hour meeting.
 
Chair Jeffrey Thomas abstained from the vote.
 
"While I hold deep reservations about the board's decision to record its view about a decision to be made by the MGRS School Committee, I could not ignore the Select Board's consensus perspective," Thomas said on Wednesday morning. "I hope that our labored discussion about the appropriateness of the action will stimulate thoughtfulness regarding the independence of town boards and committees, and that our action will not set a precedent."
 
Andy Hogeland and Anne O'Connor were ready to join Daley in taking that chance.
 
"In terms of staying in our lane, I also like to stay in our lane, but I think we've always agreed we need to be wary about going outside of it, and the type of thing you're asking, Hugh, is not that huge of a departure," Hogeland said. "It's asking someone to be prudent with money that was given to them for a particular purpose, and they should be careful with it.
 
"The thing about a ‘rainy day' fund, it's going to be fiscally ‘rainy' for the entire fiscal year, so it's not a good time to spend money you're never going to get back again."
 
Hogeland argued against taking the time to draft a letter that might require another meeting to review in two weeks and in favor of making a statement that would be reported on and heard by the members of the School Committee.
 
O'Connor, like Patton, has advocated in the past for the Select Board to make statements on matters not directly in its control. And she said Tuesday that she has observed School Committee members in the past expressing a desire to have more feedback and input from the select boards in the district's member towns.
 
O'Connor also is on record raising environmental objections about plans for an artificial turf field at Mount Greylock, the big ticket item that could lead the School Committee to dip further into the Williams College gift than previously discussed. When expressing such concerns, O'Connor has been careful to note that she was not speaking as a member of the Select Board nor representing its opinions.
 
Although the Select Board meets again on June 8 before the next scheduled meeting of the Mount Greylock School Committee on June 11, O'Connor urged her colleagues to take action on Tuesday night.
 
 "They can also call special meetings," O'Connor said of the school panel. "I've seen them call special meetings. I do share Hugh's sense of urgency because I feel like they're really swirling and grappling with all of the considerations right now. So a more timely input from us — I'm in the 'Why wait?' camp. Hugh has stated it really well."
 
Daley noted that the School Committee is not unanimous in supporting the notion of spending down the capital gift. In fact, School Committee's own Finance Subcommittee decided 3-0 in favor of not starting any new capital projects due to uncertainty about the value of the gift during a global recession.
 
"We oughta get in front of it," Daley said. "I know the School Committee wants to do the right thing. They just need to be reminded of what the right thing is."
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