Holyoke mulls next steps on school building projects

  • H.B. Lawrence Elementary school in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/7/2019 1:22:34 PM

HOLYOKE — After voters rejected a tax override to build two new middle schools in Holyoke on Tuesday, the city’s next steps remain unclear. 

If approved, the Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override would have allowed the city to fund approximately $54 million of the approximately $130 million middle schools project, with the remaining $75.8 million coming from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, or MSBA. But the ballot question failed by a margin of almost 2 to 1, putting the MSBA funding in jeopardy.

Mayor Alex Morse said in the coming days, his office will meet with Stephen Zrike, the receiver and superintendent of the school district, and others to figure out next steps. Morse said they will not immediately assume an MSBA partnership is off the table. 

“We’re going to put our heads together in the next few days and try to figure out a path forward with a recognition that we need to do something and hoping that the MSBA will want to continue to partner with us,” he said.

Kevin Jourdain, the former City Council president and a leader of the “no” campaign, said that Morse invited him to meet and discuss what direction the city should take. He said he would take up Morse on what he called a “very gracious” offer.

But Jourdain didn’t offer any ideas of alternative solutions to the district’s infrastructure woes. He said his group, Keep Holyoke Affordable for All, has no interest in dictating what next steps should be, but rather its members want a decision-making process that includes them as part of a broader coalition.

“We’re going to have not an echo chamber, but a process — a committee that is diverse, that is inclusive of all of the people of Holyoke and all the things the people of Holyoke are concerned about and need to consider,” he said.

The MSBA’s policy on failed funding votes states that a school district has up to 10 business days after the vote to submit a plan that explains the district’s understanding of why the vote failed, presents a plan to remedy the failed vote and suggests a timeline for that remedy.

“The MSBA will review the plan and determine whether it can continue to set aside MSBA funds for the proposed project,” reads the MSBA’s policy on failed votes. “However, a failed local vote likely will result in the school district being required to submit a new Statement of Interest to the MSBA and await a second invitation from the MSBA to enter the feasibility study phase of the MSBA’s process.”

Zrike was less optimistic than Morse about the ability to still partner with the MSBA. In its policy statement, the MSBA notes that, because of high demand for funding across the state, it “cannot indefinitely tie up funds allocated for a project that lacks local support.”

“What we do know is that a $75 million grant that we received is off the table,” Zrike said. “But I’m interested in looking at what other options and opportunities might exist.”

Those options will not include changes to the project, such as building just one new middle school. According to the MSBA, that kind of request would not constitute a proper response as outlined by the agency’s failed vote policy.

“Our board approved the project for two middle schools, so that’s the project that is at hand,” Matt Donovan, the MSBA director of administration and operations, said in an interview with the Gazette.

Donovan said that the MSBA never wants to see a project fail. But when a project doesn’t gain public support, there are many other communities in need of support who do have local support, he added. 

“Right now we are in a holding pattern, waiting to hear from the district on next steps,” he said.

In a message to the district, Zrike noted that the Holyoke School Building Committee will meet on Wednesday, Nov. 13  5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the high school’s Dean Campus to discuss next steps. City residents are invited to share their thoughts, questions, concerns, and ideas related to Holyoke school buildings. Those who are unable to attend the Nov. 13 meeting can submit questions and comments by emailing MSredesign@hps.holyoke.ma.us.

“They will make the determination on how to proceed in terms of another project, either construction or renovation, to MSBA,” Zrike’s update reads. “The $75.8 million grant from MSBA is no longer available to us at this time.”

The mayor, along with state Rep. Aaron Vega, and Zrike, will meet with leadership from the MSBA the week of Nov. 18 to discuss a possible path forward for the construction of new school buildings in Holyoke.

Another local community, Amherst, recently went through a similar situation. 

In November 2016, Amherst voters approved a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override to build a $67.2 million elementary school building, but then Town Meeting failed to muster the votes needed to approve town borrowing for the project. The town then attempted to override Town Meeting’s decision but failed.

The district subsequently submitted another application to the MSBA but was denied in December 2018. This March, the district again applied to the MSBA but have yet to hear back from the agency.

Joseph McGiverin, a longtime Holyoke city councilor, said that he doesn’t believe the City Council had the nine votes needed to bond for the project anyway, even if the ballot question had passed. 

McGiverin said the state should support communities like Holyoke that face significant economic and social challenges, either by directing more tax dollars to the city or updating the MSBA funding formulas. 

“I think the voters message was on the funding loud and clear,” he said. “I kind of hope that the state recognizes that and they rethink their funding schemes.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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