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South Hadley voters OK new school, town government changes

CAROL LOLLIS
left Robert G. Judge, Frank J. DeToma, and John R. Hine in front of the South Hadley town hall.

CAROL LOLLIS left Robert G. Judge, Frank J. DeToma, and John R. Hine in front of the South Hadley town hall. Purchase photo reprints »

The approval of a measure to revamp town government had a much narrower margin of victory, with 51 percent of voters backing the move and 46 percent voting against it.

Voters approved the new school 1,364 to 720, 65 to 35 percent.

The local government question was approved 1,054 to 967.

Town Clerk-Treasurer Carlene C. Hamlin said 2,086 of South Hadley’s 10,729 registered voters — slightly more than 19 percent — turned out for the special election, which only had two questions on the ballot.

Hamlin will be affected by the government revamping when her office, and that of Town Collector Deborah Baldini, become appointed rather than elected. Both women will be allowed to continue in office until their elected terms expire in 2015. If they want to then serve as appointed town officers, the ballot measure allows them to continue in office until they retire, resign or are removed for cause.

John R. Hine, chairman of the Select Board, which backed the revamping measure, said board members were “very pleased” with the outcome.

The board began pushing the measure to make all town financial officers appointed rather than elected based on a 2011 audit the board requested from the state Department of Revenue. The town accountant position, held by William Sutton, is already appointed.

The DOR report said the change would streamline town government and allow the next town administrator greater authority over South Hadley’s financial direction, with oversight from the Select Board.

“It’s been a very long effort,” Hine said, noting his board and the Financial Policy Advisory Team, chaired by Priscilla Mandrachia, worked for months to convince voters the change was needed.

“The FinPAT worked very hard over the summer and into the fall,” Hine said, referring to the numerous meetings and public forums held by the group.

Voters at the Dec. 3 special Town Meeting approved the measure. It was put on the special election ballot at the urging of FinPAT members, who recommended it be subject to a townwide vote.

A jubilant school Superintendent Nicholas D. Young said he was “extremely happy and thrilled” with voter backing for replacing Plains Elementary School, South Hadley’s oldest.

“This is a project that is absolutely necessary,” he said of the school, built in 1932 and enlarged to 44,000 square feet in 1989.

“It’s good for the students and good for the community. It will give us a strong school system for years to come,” he said.

South Hadley has qualified for a $15 million state grant to build the $28 million school, leaving the town’s share at $13 million. But the Massachusetts School Building Authority said the town must first agree to borrow the entire $28 million cost of the new school before it can receive the $15 million, which will be given to South Hadley when construction is complete.

Town officials estimate the new school will add $130 to $170 a year to the property tax bill for a home valued at $234,000. Firm figures were unavailable at the Jan. 10 special Town Meeting, where the issue was initially approved, due to the unpredictability of interest rates.

“We applaud the community for rallying behind the new school,” Young said of the planned 63,000-square-foot replacement that will be built on the same 267 Granby Road parcel as the current school, which houses 270 students in pre-school through Grade 1. To accommodate the new building, 4.5 acres will be annexed from abutting 62-acre Black Stevens Conservation Area, then the old school will be razed to provide parking and outdoor space.

Most voters interviewed Tuesday afternoon outside South Hadley High School, the town polling place, said they were drawn to the special election because of the school issue.

“The town needs a new school; it’s been years since they needed one,” said Debbie A. Mendes of Bridge Street.

Walter J. Bishop of Joffre Avenue said allowing the new school by exempting its cost from the restrictions of Proposition 2½ would be costly. “It means more taxes. They’re already too high,” he said.

Stephen B. Jaszek of Newton Street said Plains School “has always been a particular concern” due to its aging systems and structure.

“I would like a new school. I think it would be in the best interest of the town,” said Karyn L. McDermott of Spring Meadows Street.

“I went through Plains School. I love the building. It will be sad when it’s replaced, but it’s time,” said Kathy Dunn, who has purchased and now lives in her old family home on Cornell Street. “I’d love to have a brick from it, as a keepsake,” she added.

Jeannine J. Milos, a special education teacher in Granby, said she voted because “education is important.”

Plains paraprofessional Carol M. Cantin of Waite Avenue said she voted in favor of the new school because the current building is inadequate.

“We want to do a lot of things for our students, but we just can’t,” she said.

Not all came out solely for the school issue.

Patricia O’Connor said she voted “to make sure that my vote is counted, to make sure that my opinion is on the record.”

Greer A. Clarke of North Main Street said she turned out for the special balloting as an obligation, a feeling echoed by several others.

“It’s citizenship. I usually vote,” said Michael J. Scanlon of Mary Lyon Drive.

“It’s my civic duty,” said Charles E. Embury Sr. of Lyman Street. “Anyone who doesn’t vote shouldn’t complain later.”

“Not enough people vote,” said George J. Ladas of East Street. “Every vote counts.”

Etta Walsh can be reached at ewalsh.gazette@gmail.com.

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