Williamstown approves new elementary school

Williamstown voters confirmed their support for the new elementary school November 14 by passing a ballot measure that allows the debt from the $14.5 million project to be excluded from restrictions imposed by Proposition 2-1/2.

1,390 voters, or 70 percent of the total, voted in favor of the measure; 382, 30 percent, voted against. Of the 4,381 registered voters in Williamstown 1,772 turned out to cast their ballots.

At a town meeting two weeks ago, voters voiced similar support, authorizing the town to borrow $14.5 million to begin construction with an 808-25 vote.

“I’m really happy with the way it turned out. It’s really nice to have that kind of support,” said George Crane, School Committee Chairman, member of the building committee and Williams professor of political science. Crane was pleased and surprised by the outcome. “What was remarkable was the very low opposition in comparison to override votes in the past,” he said.

Crane continued, “that leaves the question of why the opposition didn’t turn out”—whether they did not vote, or whether their numbers were this low in the community.

Stuart Shatken, co-chairman of the school building committee, responded similarly. “It’s really wonderful to see that mandate from the community. That 70 percent represents a wide cross section of the community.”

Architect Margo Jones has proposed the new building as a 7,000 square foot, two-story gabled structure that will sit at the Church Street side of the school property. Construction will begin next summer and could be completed by fall 2001, according to Crane. This is an optimistic prediction, “but let’s be optimistic,” he said.

While the other two school buildings will be torn down, some members of the community want the old Southworth building preserved. A separate town committee is looking into what to do with the Southworth building.

The next step before building begins is to submit finalized educational specifications and the architect’s schematic drawings to the state, for authorization to move forward. A professional estimator will then confirm that cost estimates are sound, and the building committee will finalize a schedule for the coming months.

The state school building assistance program will contribute $9.3 million, 67 percent of the total cost of the new school. The total cost left to the town is $5.2 million, approximately the estimated cost of repairing the current school building, which is $5.3 million according to Crane. The state funding would not have been available for the repairs, since it funds only the construction of new buildings. The equal expected cost of the two projects garnered strong support within the community for the new school.

To repair the current buildings, the major engineering systems would need to be replaced, including the heat, plumbing, water, and ventilation systems, according to Crane. These system replacements would total about $4 million.

The College has promised a donation in order to keep a cap of 75 cents per $1000 assessed value as the maximum tax increase. This donation will fall between $1.5 and $2.5 million.

Helen Ouellette, Vice President of Administration, described the design of the gift as “a way to participate in a way that was meaningful to individual taxpayers.”

By framing the gift in terms of the tax cap, the College assumes the risk of fluctuating interest rates that might otherwise push the cost past the limit of $14.5 million approved by voters.

The contribution might be a step towards redefining the College’s relationship with the town. “I think this has made a big impact. People really understand that the College cares about this community. What I’d like to develop is a more pro-active relationship with the town. It’s really said to people that if there is something that you are vitally interested in, we’re interested, too,” Ouellette said.

Ouellette noted that the College would have supported either a decision to renovate or to build; the contribution was not conditional.

On campus, the Voter Information Club encouraged members of the College community to vote. “We’re here to encourage students to vote, and I think it’s a good sign that students expressed interest in the school proposition,” said Porter McConnell ’00, president of the club.

McConnell was aware of the “dilemma of students voting on a tax issue,” that some residents “resent the idea that college students who do not have to pay for the new school can vote for such a big expenditure.

“In the end, it’s my sense that a student who’s informed about town issues and really tries to make a responsible decision is not going to casually overstep the boundary between town and College,” McConnell said.