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Mount Greylock School Committee Pulls Rug Out of Fields Project
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
09:33PM / Thursday, January 14, 2021
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Thursday decided to move forward with needed improvements to the middle-high school's athletic fields, but it removed both a track and a synthetic turf field from the project that will go out to bid this winter.
 
After hearing that the estimated cost of the project with the inclusion of an artificial turf field would be more than the committee is willing to spend, it voted 6-1 to order bid documents that just address Title IX and Americans with Disabilities Act deficiencies on the campus.
 
Primarily, that means bringing the softball fields up to the same level as the school's baseball fields (Title IX) and creating hard-surface paths to the existing fields (to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act).
 
The school district has an April 2022 deadline to bring its fields in line with ADA and Title IX as a result of the Mount Greylock addition/renovation project that opened to students in the 2018-19 school year.
 
School Committee members had hoped that as part of the wider fields project, they could afford a lighted synthetic turf multi-sport field for football, lacrosse and soccer and even, perhaps, a six-lane track while still reserving $1 million from the $3.6 million that is the current value of a $5 million capital gift the school received from Williams College.
 
On Thursday afternoon, the School Committee's Finance Subcommittee got the bad news from architect Perkins Eastman: The estimated construction cost of the project with a synthetic field and the mandated upgrades is just north of $2.6 million.
 
And that was before adding lights ($361,534) or a track ($684,300).
 
"That means $2.6 [million] isn't really $2.6 [million]," Finance Subcommittee Chair Carolyn Greene told her colleagues on the full committee later Thursday evening. "It's really $2.9 [million]. It also means that it's really above what we, as a committee, are willing to spend if we say we're at $3.6 million and reserving a million, we really only have $2.6 [million to spend]."
 
The $1 million reserve to address future capital needs at the middle-high school is a hedge against future expenses that town officials in both Lanesborough and Williamstown have called on the School Committee to preserve.
 
The ballpark estimate for just the ADA and Title IX portion of the project is about $700,000, although Perkins Eastman's Dan Colli said he would have to re-run the numbers with the estimator at Hingham's PM&C in case there are economies of scale that might be lost by separating out parts of the project.
 
The district already has used part of the original $5 million capital gift from Williams College. The largest portion went to building a multipurpose building on the Mount Greylock campus that houses, among other things, the district's central administration.
 
The remainder, valued in the fall at $3.6 million, remains in the college's endowment and appreciates with the rest of Williams' investments. Mount Greylock Business Manager Joe Bergeron Thursday advised the Finance Subcommittee that $2.9 million, the remainder if the ADA/Title IX work costs $700,000, would grow to an estimated $3.5 million in two years; that assumes an average return of about 9 percent, which is not out of line with the Williams endowment's historical performance.
 
Assuming that $2.5 million will be enough to do what the School Committee wants to do in two years assumes that that investment return stays ahead of the inevitable rise in the cost of projects, which Colli said the district can expect to be about 4 percent per year.
 
"There are a lot of hypotheticals," Bergeron said. "But it's true that the more we can reserve, the faster we can afford what we really want."
 
Member Michelle Johnson suggested saving a little less and giving the school a track that it lacks in the short term.
 
In round numbers, the track ($684,300) and ADA/Title IX work ($700,000) would have a price tag of $1.4 million, according to PM&C's estimates. 
 
That would leave $2.2 million in the capital gift, which eventually would grow to enough to support the multi-sport field; it would just take a little longer, assuming — as all saving scenarios do — that future School Committees had the fiscal discipline not to touch the principal until it matured enough to support the next project.
 
Johnson ended up voting in a minority of one against a motion by Greene to leave both the track and the synthetic turf field out of the project that the district will put to bid.
 
"When I voted for this at the last meeting, it was with — apparently pie-in-the-sky — hopes that we could have it all," Julia Bowen said. "I think that since we can't, this is an opportunity, in my mind, to go forward without either the [synthetic] field or the track and develop the strategic plan that I haven't seen in the way I'd hoped to see it.
 
"I think we could benefit from stepping back and saying that, knowing the true expense of turf, it might be an opportunity to look at the expense of a grass field and get the total cost of ownership plan. I know there are programmatic changes for one versus the other, but we can have that side-by-side comparison."
 
Johnson suggested an even more radical departure from the thinking that has consumed the School Committee for the last three years: funding some or all of a synthetic turf field from a bond that could be voted on by the residents of the district's two member towns.
 
"I would not vote for a turf field at this point," Johnson said while its inclusion still was a possibility. "We don't have the money. That's a big bill to hand the towns every 10 or 20 years [for replacing synthetic surfaces].
 
"I had the idea that perhaps we do the track because we can afford it and put some or all of the turf field to the towns and let them vote on it. I think when you're handing such a large bill for upkeep and renewal of a turf field to the towns, they should have a say in it. Make sure it's not the squeaky wheel getting the grease by making sure the majority in each town thinks it's money well spent."
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