Easthampton voters will decide Tuesday on $109.3 million school

  • Pepin School, at 4 Park Street in Easthampton, was built in 1912 as the high school, with renovations in 1988. Building at left houses the cafetorium upstairs and gymnasium downstairs for both Pepin and Center Schools. Photo taken on Monday, May 7, 2018.

  • The exterior of White Brook Middle School is shown March 30, 2017 in Easthampton.

Published: 5/21/2018 2:29:41 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Voters will decide Tuesday whether the city should build a proposed $109.3 million consolidated elementary and middle school and close four existing schools, one of which was built in 1896.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. for the special election. The sole question is a debt exclusion override that would authorize borrowing for the new school. Precincts 1, 2, and 5 will vote at White Brook Middle School at 200 Park St., while Precincts 3 and 4 will vote at Easthampton High School at 70 Williston Ave.

City Clerk Barbara LaBombard predicted that turnout could be as high as 40 percent for Tuesday’s vote, based on the number of absentee ballots returned as of Monday and previous elections. There are 11,982 registered voters in Easthampton.

LaBombard said new voting machines will be used for the first time, and she expects results to be posted at the precincts shortly after 8 p.m.

About 55 percent of the total cost for the proposed 176,155-square-foot school, or $59.71 million, would be financed with local property taxes. The school would be built on Park Street at the site of the White Brook Middle School, which would be torn down afterward.

The three elementary schools that would be replaced — Maple, Center and Pepin — would be turned back to the city for reuse or sale to help finance the new building.

The project has drawn strong support from Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, the City Council and School Committee, as well as the citizens’ group Committee for Building Easthampton’s Future, which has campaigned in favor of the school by distributing fliers, and organizing rallies and sign-holding events.

Among the reasons supporters list for a new school are the current outdated buildings and antiquated mechanical systems that do not meet modern safety standards and accessibility codes, and that lack educational space.

Deb Lusnia, chairwoman of Committee for Building Easthampton’s Future, said supporters will gather at the Pulaski Club at 79 Maple St. at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

While there is no organized opposition to the school, concerns have been raised the quality of soil at the building site and the burden of such an expensive project on seniors and others living on fixed incomes, especially while the city is still paying off the construction of Easthampton High School, which opened in 2013.

Since 2015, a School Building Committee has been working with project managers and architects from Colliers International, of Toronto, and Caolo & Bieniek Associates, of Chicopee, and has “explored all possible options in an effort to bring forward ... the best possible solution,” Chairman Thomas Brown said at a May 1 public forum, the sixth and final one held by the committee.

The question on the ballot reads: “Shall the City of Easthampton be allowed to exempt from the provisions of Proposition two and one-half, so-called, the amounts required to pay for the bond issued in order to fund the New Pre-K thru grade eight School Project to be located at 200 Park Street, Easthampton, MA?”

Repairing the three existing elementary schools, along with the middle school, to bring them up to code would cost $135.85 million, an estimated $105.84 of which would be paid for by residents, according to Colliers International.

City officials predict that the tax impact of building the new school would be an increase of $2.98 to $3.84 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The average home in Easthampton is assessed at $228,400. That could mean an increase of around $650 to $877 in taxes for the average homeowner, in addition to any proposed tax increases of up to 2.5 percent allowed by the state each year.

Last week, the Easthampton City Council eased the tax burden for low-income, senior homeowners by increasing an annual rebate from $700 to $1,000 for those who qualify, and lowering the age threshold from 70 to 65.

There is also a resolution before the City Council’s Rules and Government Relations Committee directing the city to set aside 50 percent of the revenue received from the recreational marijuana sales tax for a fund that would provide additional tax relief for seniors 65 and older.

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at mjtidwell@gazettenet.com.

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