Decision Day: Future of Easthampton’s middle, elementary schools rests with May 22 vote

  • Pepin School first grade teacher Laurie McCullough and her students fit into a smaller classroom at the Easthampton elementary school on Monday, May 7, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Center/Pepin Schools Principal Allison Rebello, right, visits teacher Jill Collins and fourth-graders James Kaleta and Maria Valdes, Monday, in an alcove outside the Pepin school elevator, seen just behind her, used mainly for occupational therapy. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Above, a third floor stairwell landing serves as the regular meeting area for an English Language Learners class at Pepin School in Easthampton.

  • A third floor stairwell landing serves as the regular meeting area for an ELL, or English Language Learners, class at Pepin School in Easthampton. Photo taken on Monday, May 7, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Windows in the third floor stairwell landing at Pepin School, which serves as the regular meeting area for an ELL class, do not have screens and must be propped open with books. Photo taken on Monday, May 7, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Occupational therapist Barb Boulay regularly carries her materials between Pepin School, behind her, and Center School, a short block away, for her sessions with students at these two Easthampton elementary schools. Photo taken on Monday, May 7, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • An aerial view of Center/Pepin Schools in Easthampton, ca. 1980s, framed in the hallway at Pepin. The 1902 Center School, at 9 School Street, is the red brick building at lower left, and the 1912 Pepin School, at 4 Park Street, originally the high school, is the tan brick complex at center left. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Pepin School, at 4 Park Street in Easthampton, was built in 1912 as the high school, with renovations in 1988. Photo taken on Monday, May 7, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • 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. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Center School, at 9 School Street in Easthampton, dates from 1902. Photo taken on Monday, May 7, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Center School, at 9 School Street in Easthampton, dates from 1902. Photo taken on Monday, May 7, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • The speech room is one of three similarly sized meeting rooms within the special services area in the basement of Center School. Photo taken on Monday, May 7, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Special education teacher Heather Cuthbertson, left, and reading recovery teacher Emily Gaestel, right, provide services in a Center School room where an assortment of book shelves serves as a makeshift wall. Photo taken on Monday, May 7, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Occupational therapist Barb Boulay uses the center of three similarly sized meeting rooms in the special services area in the basement of Center School on Monday, May 7, 2018, in Easthampton. The door at left is to the speech services room and to the right is another room used for student support. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • The exterior of White Brook Middle School is shown March 30, 2017 in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JOSHUA MURRAY

  • The exterior of White Brook Middle School is shown March 30, 2017 in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JOSHUA MURRAY

  • Katie Aylward, an art teacher at Maple Elementary in Easthampton watches as Lilly Urban cleans up at the end of class. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Basement hallway where the cafeteria and class rooms are at Maple Elementary in Easthampton stands out side the school which was built in 1896. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Stan Szafir, a janitor at Maple Elementary in Easthampton, cleans the room which serves as the cafeteria, in door gym space and room where an all school event would gather at Maple Elementary in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Cindy Cloutier, the Physical Education and Music teacher teaches an out door class at Maple Elementary in Easthampton. The school has only asphalt space for an out door area. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • At left, an art class in the basement where the cafeteria and classrooms are at Maple Elementary in Easthampton.

  • Pepin School third grade teacher Kelly Loring leads her students down Clark Avenue to their art class at Center School on Monday, May 7, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Judy Averill, the principal at Maple Elementary in Easthampton stands out side the school which was built in 1896. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Students and a teacher enter Maple Elementary in Easthampton which was built in 1896. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Saturday, May 12, 2018

EASTHAMPTON — On May 22, Easthampton voters will decide whether or not to borrow money to build a new school for nearly 1,000 elementary and middle school students, and shutter four existing schools, including one built in the 19th century.

The cost for the proposed 176,155-square-foot school is estimated at $109.3 million, with around $59.71 million financed through local property taxes. It would be built on Park Street at the site of the White Brook Middle School, which would be torn down afterward.

The project has drawn strong support from some residents and the campaign group Committee for Building Easthampton’s Future. Others in the city, however, are raising questions such as why the schools were allowed to deteriorate to the extent they have and how residents on fixed incomes will be able to pay the increase in their tax bills such an extensive project will create.

“We have sort of kicked the can down the road,” said Thomas Brown, chairman of the School Building Committee. “We can defer it, we can wait, we can keep going the way we’re going, but some day, some generation will pay for new schools in Easthampton.”

Norman Taft, a city resident who is retired, said at a recent public forum that rising tax rates are already difficult for those living on fixed incomes.

“From my perspective, we’ve gotten to the point where there are no increases in income and our ability to pay is increasingly diminished,” he said. “I’d like the city to be sensitive to the fact that our senior population is going to take a big hit.”

A March report from project managers and architects estimated that repairing the existing four pre-K through 8 schools to bring them up to code would cost $135.85 million, an estimated $105.84 of which would be paid for by residents. Replacing just the elementary schools would cost $60 million, with $34.7 million carried by the district, according to the report, but would not address problems with White Brook Middle School.

The schools that would be consolidated with the proposed project are Maple Elementary, Pepin Elementary, Center Elementary and White Brook Middle schools.

Financial impact

According to city officials, the preliminary tax impact to property owners 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.

Easthampton’s tax rate for the current fiscal year is $16 per $1,000 of assessed value.

“This is a huge next step for Easthampton,” Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said. “I understand the fiscal impact on each and every homeowner and also folks who might rent or do business. It will impact our entire community.”

LaChapelle said the city will not talk with borrowing agencies until at least August and that the exact bond rates and repayment schedules will be determined by the specific construction plans and market rates at the time of construction. Construction would likely begin mid-2019 with the goal of opening the school in the fall of 2021.

LaChapelle said the city might consider a smaller bond first to pay for materials and then take out a larger bond for interior work on classrooms. Taxpayers would feel the impact as the city draws money for the project, according to LaChapelle.

“For the first disbursement of money, to say, buy the steel, we’d see the effect on the tax rate the following year,” she said.

If construction were to begin according to the anticipated timeline, that means Easthampton residents would start to see their taxes affected in 2020.

LaChapelle also said she is committed to finding new sources of revenue. She noted the city has received two community compact grants of $25,000 each to improve its financial reporting, which will attract more state and federal money for development. She also said the city has been certified as an “opportunity zone” by the state, which will help bring in investments in business and housing development that could increase property values.

LaChapelle said the city is considering an increase of the current tax rebate for people on fixed income from $700 to $1,000, and lowering the qualifying age from 70 to 65. She said that the proposed changes are before the city’s Board of Assessors and then will go to the City Council for consideration.

Precinct 5 City Councilor Daniel Rist said that he hopes the city will find a way to use revenues from recreational marijuana sales, which begin in July, to help ease the burden on taxpayers. He expects the mayor’s proposed changes to the exemption for seniors and those on fixed incomes to be passed unanimously by the City Council.

“We will do everything we can to mitigate this cost,” he said. “The City Council supports this project, but not blindly. We know what it costs.”

In LaChapelle’s view, the return on the city’s investment in the proposed new school is “immense.” But more important, she said, would be the consequences for Easthampton’s economy, the morale of the community and property values if voters don’t support it.

“This is about what is next and in front of all of us,” she said. “This is about opportunity and strength for our whole city.”

Questions, answers

As the vote nears, Superintendent of Schools Nancy Follansbee posted a list of questions answered by the School Building Committee on the district website.

Among the answers are:

If voters approve the new school, the School Department will turn the old buildings back to the city to have them declared surplus and look at options for reuse or disposal. 

$109 million has been set as the maximum total project cost to avoid unforseen costs. Substantial contingency funds are built into the project’s cost to cover any unanticipated expenses.

The plan calls for separate approaches for bus and parent drop off and pick up of students. There will also be a separate drop off and pick up location for students with disabilities. Elementary and middle school students won’t ride the same buses, and bus pick up and drop off times for elementary and middle school students will be staggered as they are currently.

Three lots are planned with 292 parking spaces available for staff, teacher and visitor parking.

Classrooms in the new school would be a third larger than existing classrooms in the current schools and there would be three prekindergarten classrooms, six kindergarten classrooms and five general classrooms per grade level. Plans show three physical education teaching spaces, two art rooms, three music rooms, and two library/media centers.

In response to concerns about soil quality and the building suitability of the site, as well as questions about any potential contamination that could affect the Barnes Aquifer below, the committee said three soil borings were analyzed by the geotechnical engineering firm, O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun. Soil conditions are similar to those at the new high school and challenges can be solved similarly. 

Planning process

The School Building Committee, formed in November 2015, includes representatives from city government, the business community, the school department and city residents. Chairman Brown said the committee did not come to its recommendation for a consolidated school quickly. Visioning sessions, regular meetings to review detailed information by project managers and architects, meetings with the Massachusetts School Building Association and public forums with Easthampton residents were all part of the process.

“We feel we have explored all possible options in an effort to bring forward to you the best possible solution,” Brown told residents at the final public forum.

To start the design process, project manager Mel Overmoyer of Canada-based Colliers International, said architects and an educational consultant worked with a large group that included the mayor, school department employees, students, parents and community members. A group of some 35 people were guided through three days of exercises to form the basis of a proposed new school, Brown said.

Because the Massachusetts School Building Authority designated the Maple Elementary School as a priority for replacement, any project would have to include it, according to Follansbee.

The building committee considered repairing all of the existing schools, building a new school to replace the existing elementary schools and various alternatives to a new pre-K through 8 school to replace all four existing elementary schools and White Brook Middle School.

Repairing all four schools would have to be staggered with different completion years for each school, Overmoyer said, and would be a “shot in the dark” to modernize them for today’s learning.

“These options were not pursued, as they would not have resulted in educational equity to all Easthampton elementary-aged students, nor ... allow for sufficient development of outdoor spaces, necessary to support education, play, or parking needs,” according to the School Building Committee.

Overmoyer said the best option for equity of education for all students and cost efficiency was the new consolidated pre-K through 8 school built on the site of the existing athletic fields at White Brook Middle School.

“The School Building Committee struggled long and hard on this,” he said. “It really is the cheapest approach and addresses all four of the buildings at once.”

Overmoyer said that if the city does not approve the proposed school plans, the price for the project will go up with inflation. He said that inflation in construction runs about 4 percent per year, which could greatly increase costs if the project is delayed.

According to the School Building Committee, if the project is voted down, there would be another three- to four-year planning period for any new project with inflationary costs and new plan design costs that would not be covered by the MSBA.

If the city approves the project, Overmoyer said the feasibility study would go to the MSBA in three weeks and, if approved, would move into the final phase of design and bidding for construction.

Once the new building is complete, Overmoyer said, the existing White Brook Middle School would be torn down during the last half of 2021 to complete parking lots for the new consolidated school.

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