In Holyoke, replacing middle schools is biggest issue on the ballot

  • An artist’s rendering shows one of the two proposed middle schools on the site of William R. Peck Middle School in Holyoke. contributed/Jones Whitsett Architects

Staff Writer
Published: 11/2/2019 1:47:37 PM

HOLYOKE — As Election Day approaches Tuesday, one of the most debated issues across the Pioneer Valley is the ballot question in Holyoke to approve a debt-exclusion override to build two new 550-student middle schools.

The $130 million project is approved to receive $75.8 million from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, or MSBA. On Tuesday, residents will vote whether to approve a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override to cover the remaining $54 million. Voting “yes” would send the project to the City Council, where nine councilors would then have to vote to issue a bond. Voting “no” would mean the city would decline the MSBA money and wouldn’t build the schools.

The “No” group “Keep Holyoke Affordable for All” and the “Yes” group “Yes to Invest” have campaigned across the city and on social media, where the issue has become divisive on public forums.

Opponents of the project have said the tax increase needed to build the schools will be overly burdensome on residents and businesses, drawing attention to the city’s current debt and future unfunded liabilities.

“It’s just ridiculous,” said Kevin Jourdain, the former City Council president. “There’s much cheaper approaches, but there’s no way this is sustainable when we look at the overall city finances because all these other bills are coming due.”

Jourdain called the project a “shakedown of the seniors and working families of Holyoke,” criticizing the amount of funding the state is putting up — a reimbursement rate that amounts to 57 percent despite Holyoke being eligible for 80 percent. He said he is concerned that the ballot question is a “blank check” and that the process leading up to the vote included little public input.

Linda Vacon, the Ward 5 City Councilor and a vocal critic of the project, took issue with figures put out by the city announcing that, for the average single-family home valued at $190,637, the annual tax increase is expected to be $129.60.

That projection, she said, is premised on an annual $1 million contribution the school district has agreed to pay the city with approval from the state education department. But that agreement could be revoked in the future, she claimed, adding that the original estimate of an average $250 annual tax hike is more accurate.

“There has been no binding agreement or number that changes that original estimate,” she said.

Vacon noted that the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce board of directors has urged its members to vote no on the ballot question. The argument that building new schools will attract new businesses and investment to the city, she said, is unrealistic.

Supporters of the project call it a “once in a generation opportunity” to invest in the students of a school district that hasn’t built a new school in more than 30 years. And renovating Peck Middle School — which would be demolished and replaced under the proposed project — would cost more than $70 million to meet the district’s educational outcomes, according to the superintendent’s office.

Patty Lubold, a parent of two children — one of whom recently graduated and another who attended Peck until last year — said she became involved in the “Yes” campaign after reading an independent 2016 audit of the district’s infrastructure. She said it is clear that the city is going to have to pay to improve its schools sooner or later. And later would likely be more expensive, she added.

“My fear as a taxpayer is that the vote goes down, we still have the same crumbling infrastructure and now we’re going to be at risk of paying it out of the city budget and not from debt exclusion,” she said.

Lubold said building the new schools is an opportunity not just for students, but for its teachers and staff too, all of whom have to bear the “unconscionable conditions” in the schools that will be replaced. Those conditions prevent middle-school students from having access to WiFi and science labs in some cases. The new buildings, she said, will help equip those students for a global economy in a way the current buildings can’t.

“We don’t have one-room schools anymore for a reason,” she said. “The world has changed.”

Mayor Alex Morse is another supporter of the project. He said the school district currently does not have a single square foot of appropriate middle school space.

Morse said the city has already worked to lower the annual tax burden of the projects down to $129 for the average household, and that those city figures are a “worst case scenario” that assumes no economic growth in the city. If the override is approved, he said, the city will likely be able to further lower the tax burden through additional cost reductions and increased city revenue from economic growth.

“Frankly, the city can’t afford not to do this,” he said, calling the projects the most financially responsible decision. “It’s a fundamental question: Do we believe in public education or not?”

Morse said the “No” campaign has put out misinformation about the project — for example, that the ballot question is a “blank check.” The project is being undertaken with a “construction manager at risk” process in which the company agrees to take on any cost overruns, he said.

“This is an investment in our city, it’s an investment in our people, in our students and in our business community,” he said.

Polls open Tuesday at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

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


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