In wake of ‘no’ vote, Heath considers school’s future

  • Heath’s Annual Town Meeting last month, where voters opposed permitting the Selectboard to sell or lease the former school building. The Selectboard discussed how to move forward at Tuesday’s meeting. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Heath's former school, which closed in 2017 due to consistently low enrollment.  FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/4/2019 10:37:18 PM

HEATH — After townspeople twice rejected an article to permit the Selectboard to lease or sell Heath’s former school, the community discussed Tuesday how to move forward — and considered some new information on the matter.

While the Selectboard admitted many legal and monetary issues related to the school remain unclear, members said they intended to create a couple or even several committees to explore options.

Recently, the Selectboard learned from town counsel that it is may be able to lease the former school for up to 30 years, according to Mass. General Law, Chapter 40, Section 3, Chair Brian DeVriese said.

DeVriese said the reason the vote was brought twice to the town in March and May — to permit the Selectboard to sell or lease the school building — was to sell the building to the sole bidder, the marijuana company Carnegie Arch LLC. But DeVriese said the Selectboard was not aware it could lease the building for up to 30 years under the law, despite seeking clarification from town counsel several times.

“The board cannot dispose of town property without a town meeting vote … in terms of selling it,” DeVriese said.

About a dozen residents were present at Tuesday’s Selectboard meeting, questioning why the town voted on leasing the building twice if this action is already legal.

“This whole thing has created a huge amount of confusion,” Planning Board Member William Gran said.

DeVriese said the board will seek clarification from town counsel.

“I don’t think we can answer this; the only one who can answer this is the attorney,” DeVriese said.

Bob Dane asked the Selectboard’s opinion on the counsel’s performance. DeVriese declined to offer a judgment on the matter.

“He’s given four different opinions over the course of three months,” Dane said.

Town Coordinator Kara Leistyna posed a question: when does the Heath School stop being a school?

“That’s foggy,” Leistyna said.

DeVriese said the space is a “school building not being used as a school right now.”

To sell, leave or close up shop?

The Selectboard discussed how best to move forward, raising three options. Choices are: to lease the building, leave it open for town use, or close it altogether. However, board members said “mothballing” the building would be last on the list.

Selectboard members expressed the most interest in leasing the building, saying it would create a stream of revenue for the town and decrease the cost of insurance.

“It’s better to make the building not completely useless because the insurance is so high,” Leistyna said. “We’ve got to figure out what to do.”

DeVriese said he doubted the town would find a tenant who would want to lease the entire building and suggested leasing the building in sections. He raised the idea of retaining use of the gym and cafeteria for town meetings and leasing out other rooms, mainly classrooms.

According to DeVriese, one party has expressed interest in leasing a portion of the building, though he did not identify them as the offer was only made recently. Carnegie has not expressed interest in leasing the building, he said.

The board said it did not have any plans to lease the building yet.

“I doubt we’re going to find anyone who will want the whole building,” DeVriese said.

Board of Health Chair Betsy Kovacs said the town should ensure it does not “incur a cost” for leasing the building.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re leasing it to at least break even,” Kovacs said.

Selectboard member Gloria Cronin Fisher agreed, saying the town cannot afford to pay for the building.

“We have to make sure this is not going to cost the town one red cent because we don’t have the money,” Cronin Fisher said.

While the Selectboard said closing the building is indeed an option, members indicated this choice was a last resort.

DeVriese said he is “not in favor of mothballing” the building. Provost-Carlson agreed, saying “there’s too much interest in looking at possible uses for the building.”

Finance Committee weighs in

Heath’s Finance Committee presented a report at Tuesday’s meeting with the costs of the building’s maintenance between May 18, 2018 to April 19 of this year.

The school costs the town about $50,000 per year when all expenses are taken into account, according to the Finance Committee. Among the costs are Internet, electricity, plowing, the custodian’s salary and more.

Cronin Fisher suggested the town finds out how much it cost Mohawk Trail Regional School District to use the building five days a week, when Heath Elementary School was in operation from 1995 to 2017.

“Actual-use numbers might be helpful, rather than looking at how much it cost when it was not used,” Cronin Fisher said. “We’ve got to make some money.”

Selectboard members said they would establish two or three committees to determine feasible uses or ways to care for the building and to examine needs for the current facility and how it might be used in the future.

Those interested in volunteering for a committee can contact Town Coordinator Kara Leistyna for consideration at bos@townofheath.org or 413-337-4934, ext. 0.

Reach Grace Bird at gbird@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 280.


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