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Rowe board on fast track for new school

ROWE — Although an annual town meeting vote on whether to replace the destroyed Rowe Elementary School is still months away, town officials are taking steps to ensure that, if residents want a new school, the town might have one ready by September 2014.

And in the interest of speed, that might involve going it alone without state matching money, which most communities need to build schools.

Selectmen recently OK’d a special town meeting warrant article for Jan. 23, asking voters to spend $250,000 of the town’s fire insurance money to hire an owner’s project manager (OPM) and an architect for preliminary work on a “municipal building” — a school, a community center or a combination, depending on what townspeople want.

The special town meeting will be held in the Rowe Historical Society’s Kemp-McCarthy Museum, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

The board also agreed to hold a public forum on Jan. 16, to get residents’ opinions and perspectives on how the town should best use the insurance settlement from the Aug. 4 school building fire. However, the meeting place for that forum has not been announced.

While many residents want to see the school rebuilt, others are questioning whether town demographics can justify the cost of a multi-million dollar building. The Oct. 1, 2012, enrollment for the Rowe Elementary School was 52 students in kindergarten through grade 6. Of these, only 32 were from Rowe while 20 were school-choice students from other towns. In terms of preschool enrollment, five out of seven children live in Rowe.

The School Building Committee has sent out a four-page survey asking residents their priorities and what they want to see on the old school site — a building similar to the old Rowe School, to be used as a school and for community functions, a community center only, or to build nothing at all.

“If the decision is made to rebuild a school, then the process carries enormous urgency,” the school building committee wrote in this month’s town newsletter. “To move slowly in the planning phase to rebuild the school would extend the time and overall costs of educating our children in another location.”

The survey also asks residents if they would be willing to pay a tax increase for school building costs that exceed the amount provided by the town’s insurance policy and possible grants. In fiscal year 2011, the residential tax rate was $5.33 per $1,000 valuation, among the lowest in the state.

School Building Committee Chairwoman Susie Zavotka said the results from the survey, which is due back by Jan. 9, will be compiled and presented in a report that the committee hopes can be ready in time for the Jan. 16 forum.

Brian Donelson, a 35-year resident, is calling for a second article to be added to the warrant, asking that no more than $50,000 be spent on an impartial consultant, to “study the demographics and the needs of the town,” before preparing a report that would clearly state available alternatives, the pros and cons of each, and the estimated costs associated with each.

“It would be irresponsible for us to spend $250,000 and commit the town to what may be the wrong choice, without fully hearing our rights and our alternatives from impartial experts more knowledgeable than we are,” he said.

Warren Kalaus of Rowe told selectmen that the $250,000 warrant article was “putting the cart before the horse” since voters haven’t decided to go ahead with rebuilding the school.

When asked why the town officials are asking for $250,000 — instead of a smaller sum for a feasibility study, Zavotka said the School Building Committee has essentially been doing its own feasibility study, through weekly and biweekly meetings and with input from the survey.

“Since we had the insurance money already, it was important to speed up this process,” she explained. “If and when the town votes (during the special town meeting) to support this money going toward a school, that will give us a clear direction to hire an owner’s project manager (OPM) and architect,” she said.

Zavotka believes the committee could have its own feasibility study completed by the time that an architect would be hired. She said voting first for a feasibility study would add time to the process and “would be another $30,000 we don’t need to spend.”

Since the committee was formed in November, the full committee has met at least three times, and its subcommittees have met a combined nine times, she said.

Also, town officials have looked into whether the town can build its own school without going through either the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) or the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). And, according to the school district’s lawyer, Russell Dupere, the town can build a school on its own, if no state funding is involved.

Dupere’s letter said that the MSBA wants a letter indicating that reimbursement is not being sought. He said local building codes must be followed and reviewed by a local building inspector. Also, the town must follow state procurement processes.

This Wednesday, the school board plans to discuss and sign a letter to the MSBA, according to the school committee agenda. That meeting begins at 6 p.m. in the Town Hall.

Last Wednesday, selectmen agreed to hire the Franklin Regional Council of Governments for procurement needs for “a municipal building.”

In this month’s Rowe Goal Post, selectmen argued that “to move slowly in the planning phase ... would extend the time and overall costs of educating our children in another location.”

The most the town can collect from its insurance policy is $6.9 million, and that sum includes money spent on relocation costs for this year’s students.

Besides paying for bus transportation, the town is spending $74,032 to lease space this year in the Hawlemont Regional School in Charlemont.

With the $250,000, the town would get a schematic design and full set of building plans and specifications, along with an estimated cost.

Selectman Marilyn Wilson said she has heard from about 100 residents who are concerned that the town is rushing into a decision to build a new school, and Wilson proposed a forum before the special town meeting, “so that every voice can be listened to,” she said.

Rowe Elementary School is temporarily housed in the Hawlemont Regional School building in Charlemont. Hawlemont and Rowe are currently in negotiations for Rowe to continue holding classes in the school building through the spring of 2014.

One much-discussed issue is whether Rowe can accept more “School Choice” students while it is housed in Charlemont. Hawlemont board members don’t want Rowe to accept additional school-choice students while it is housed in the Hawlemont building — because both schools would be competing for those same students.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:
dbronc@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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