Town voters approve first elementary school measure

At a special town meeting last Tuesday, Williamstown voters approved by an 808-25 margin a measure to borrow $14.5 million for the construction of a new elementary school. In order to proceed the plan must pass another ballot measure, which will be held on November 16.

Members of the New School Building Committee were surprised and delighted with the overwhelming turnout and support from town voters. “It’s a clear statement that the people support education,” committee member Elizabeth Williams said. John Agostini, Co-chairman of the Building Committee, called last night’s vote “the first step.”

The vote authorized the town to borrow money for the total cost of the school. At the November 16 vote, voters are being asked to approve an exemption of the debt from the restrictions of Proposition 2-1/2, which is the final vote before construction can begin.

The state school building assistance program has already agreed to contribute $9.3 million dollars to the project, 67 percent of the total cost. In addition, Williams College has agreed to contribute between $1.5 and $2.5 million dollars in order to keep a cap of 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed value as the maximum tax increase.

“I’m very pleased with the turnout, very pleased with the vote, and I’m going to keep my fingers crossed through next Tuesday’s balloting,” Agostini said after the vote.

Stuart Shatkin, co-chairman of the Building Committee with Agostini agreed that he was pleased with both the vote and the turnout. “This bodes well for the future of Williamstown,” he said.

Approximately 860 people attended the meeting, while the annual town meeting in May drew about 400 residents. Registered voters in the town number 4375, according to Town Clerk Mary C. Kennedy.

Moderator Stanley Parese was forced to delay the meeting’s start three times to allow the overflowing crowd to check in on the voters list and find a seat. When all the seats and bleachers were full, plastic chairs from nearby classrooms were brought in to accommodate the crowd, which was larger than expected.

Shatkin began the meeting by presenting a background of the New School Building Committee’s work leading to its recommendation for the construction of a new school. According to Shatkin it would cost $5.2 million to make minimum accessibility, safety and circulation improvements to the existing structure.

This would cost the town as much as a new school building, as state aid that only applies to new buildings would cover the balance. While the town will initially borrow the $14.5 million sum, it will only pay the interest until the state reimbursement is received.

Several citizens expressed their displeasure that the old Southworth building could be torn down as part of the proposal. Jane Nichols, a resident, agreed with the committee that the town definitely needs a new school, but argued that the 100-year old Southworth building should be incorporated into the plans.

“A bright, shiny new school is appealing, but there is a lot of magic in these old buildings,” Nichols said. Some citizens also questioned who would pay for cost overruns, but Shatkin explained that the architects were chosen on the basis of their track record. He explained that if costs exceed the $14.5 million figure, they will go back to the architects and ask them to redesign the building.

“The $14.5 figure is fixed,” he said. “We are not going to start construction until that’s firm.”

Prior to the vote, Finance Committee member Elaine Neely told voters that the last time the town faced the issue of a new school in the late 1970s, voters rejected it.

“It would have cost this community $1 million to build a new school in the ’70s,” Neely said. “Any vote other than a vote to build this school will do financial harm to the community.”

Balloting for today’s measure will take place at the Flagg-Sylvester Gymnasium.