Hilltown Cooperative Charter School eyes move to former Easthampton industrial building
Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School is located in the historic Brassworks building in Haydenville. The school's administrators are hoping to move to Easthampton next summer.
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A Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School classroom in the Brassworks in Haydenville. The school's administrators are hoping to move to a different location in Easthampton next summer.
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The former Jenoptik Optical Systems building in Easthampton where the Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School is hoping to move.
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Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School Educational Coordinator Dan Klatz and Administrative Coordinator Amy Aaron pose for a portrait outside of the school's current location in the Brassworks in Haydenville July 25, 2013. They are hoping to move the school to Easthampton.
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EASTHAMPTON — After 17 years of searching, Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School officials said they have found a suitable space to move.
If all goes well, the K-8 school will move from its longtime rented space in the Brassworks building in Haydenville into the former Jenoptik Optical Systems manufacturing building at 1 Industrial Parkway in Easthampton next summer.
“We’ve been looking for another location for almost as long as we’ve been around,” said Amy Aaron, the school’s administrative coordinator. “It’s been a long journey, and we are really excited to be close to the end of this process.”
The move isn’t final yet; the school needs approval from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education first. After that, it can finalize and sign a 20-year lease with the building’s owner, Middle Franklin Development Group, of Chicopee.
Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Lauren Greene said the location of a school is written into every school’s charter when it is first approved. That means in order to move to another municipality, the Hilltown school asked the board July 25 to approve an amendment to its charter.
“Altering the terms of a charter is a major amendment request,” Greene said in an email to the Gazette.
Local leaders in Easthampton will be notified that they have 15 days to comment on the request, Greene said, and then the department will review the comments and Hilltown Charter School’s request before making a recommendation to the board “in the coming months.” She said it has not been decided when the board will take up the matter.
Meanwhile, the school is not being welcomed with open arms by the city’s chief executive.
“I’m not a supporter of charter schools and I don’t think this is going to be good for the community,” Mayor Michael A. Tautznik said Friday. He said the charter school could pull more students from the public school system, which would then have to pay for them to attend the charter school, per the state’s school-choice rules. The property, valued at $1.3 million, will also become tax-exempt if it is used by a public nonprofit.
“That property is great for industrial expansion, the school should occupy an area that isn’t zoned for industrial use,” Tautznik said. “This takes the property off the market for industrial, taxable use.”
He noted, though that schools are exempt from zoning laws, which means they can go anywhere they find a suitable space.
Tautznik said he will submit comments to the state though he hasn’t decided what he will say.
What new space offers
The new location, in the industrial park off O’Neill Street, is more modern, more private, and has more space both inside the 24,268-square-foot building and on the 4-acre property. The only drawback is that it’s not in the Hilltowns, Aaron said.
“Deciding to pursue property in Easthampton was very difficult for the board of trustees because we know it will impact our Hilltown families. Our origins are here,” she said of the 18-year-old school. “But we have to think about the institution’s long-term viability and getting our own place fits the needs of our students.”
Many of the 175 students hail from Northampton and Easthampton, Aaron said, and the location will be an equivalent or shorter trip from home to school for 70 percent of students.
Aaron said she hopes the school can forge new partnerships in Easthampton, including working with Easthampton Public Schools to their mutual benefit. She also said the community is a good fit for the charter school.
“It’s a really interesting time for Easthampton,” she said. “It’s increasingly becoming known as an arts center, and one of our core values is integrating arts in the curriculum.”
Searching near and far
The school opened in 1993 in leased space in the Brassworks, a revitalized mill building on Route 9 in Haydenville overlooking the Mill River. “It was never meant to be our permanent home,” Aaron said.
Despite its charm, Aaron said the space has serious drawbacks. There is very little outdoor space, providing only a small playground area, and pulling out onto Route 9 is difficult for parents and staff because of poor visibility. Sharing the building with numerous other tenants is a security issue, she said, and it was costly for the school to build out and maintain its spaces.
“All these things motivated us to go elsewhere,” Aaron said. She estimated school officials have looked at between 20 and 30 different properties over the years. “We looked at anything that was feasible.”
Starting in the mid-1990s, they looked at a steady stream of commercial and other buildings, including a Williamsburg dairy farm, a Westhampton horse farm, a Whately bakery and the former Ashfield elementary school. They considered sharing the former Hampshire Care nursing home in Leeds, now known as Overlook at Northampton, and even looked into buying the Brassworks. They talked to officials at the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech about their Round Hill Road campus, but the Northampton school opted to sell to a developer last summer.
For eight years, school officials tried to buy or lease the former Hatfield junior high school at 58 Main St. But when Hatfield officials eventually agreed to lease it to the school in 2012, the building had fallen into such disrepair that school officials declined the offer, saying it would have cost upward of $5 million to bring it up to code and build an addition to house all their students.
Aaron said new construction is not an option because unlike other public schools, charter public schools by law cannot get help from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The authority covers between 31 and 80 percent of the costs of building or renovating eligible public schools.
“That money isn’t available to us, so we would have to fundraise or save from our operating budget, and we live on a very tight budget,” she said.
Then a few months ago, Aaron said, the former Jenoptik site “fell into our lap.” A realtor called to let them know the building was available, and as they had many times before, they decided to go take a look.
“It has great potential,” she said. “It’s on 4 acres of land, which means we can build a real playground ... It needs very little work and it already has smoke and fire alarms, air conditioning, and infrastructure.” It’s also easily accessible by car, public bus or by the nearby Manhan Rail Trail, she said.
Middle Franklin Development Group bought the building May 10 for $700,000, two weeks after Jenoptik Optical Systems closed. School officials knew the owners’ representative, Matthew McDonough, because years before he had offered to buy the Hatfield school building and lease it to Hilltown Charter, but the town didn’t want to sell.
McDonough said that while putting a school in an industrial park may seem strange, he thinks it’s a great idea.
“The building and the site are pretty conducive for the use. It’s a modern industrial building, so it feels more office-y than industrial,” he said. “It’s a large parcel, it’s really accessible, and it’s not a heavily trafficked area.”
It was built in 1991 with an addition completed in 2002, according to city records. Middle Franklin Development Group will install an elevator and some interior walls to construct classrooms and other rooms, but then it will be essentially ready for students, McDonough said.
The school has tentatively agreed to pay $300,000 annually in rent for the first five years, according to documents it submitted to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. For the rest of the 20-year lease, the price will increase incrementally every five years based on the consumer price index.
One-time moving costs are likely to total $130,000, the school told the state. The school will also try to raise funds to design and build a playground and to buy some new furnishings.
The state has approved the school’s plan to grow from 175 students to 218 over the next four years, Aaron said, but that has nothing to do with the approximately 4,000 square feet of extra room they will have in Easthampton. The school wants to increase enrollment in grades 6 through 8 to give students “a bigger social pond” and allow teachers to specialize in subjects, instead of teaching all of them. “We’re not interested in growing more than that,” she said.
She said that 17 years ago, she wouldn’t have imagined the school would be planning to start classes in September 2014 in a former optical manufacturing building in Easthampton.
“I’m feeling a combination of excitement and relief that we found a location and sadness that we’re moving farther from the Hilltowns,” she said.
As for whether the school will change its name to reflect its new location, Aaron said that is the least of the school’s worries. “Down the road we may look at that, but we have no plans for that now,” she said.
Rebecca Everett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.