Heath Selectboard declines to join forum on school renaming

  • Heath’s municipal offices, located in the former elementary school at 18 Jacobs Road. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 1/31/2023 6:55:03 PM
Modified: 1/31/2023 6:54:51 PM

HEATH — The Selectboard has decided not to go forward with participating in a community forum on naming the former school turned municipal offices at 18 Jacobs Road, a topic that inspired angry emails from at least 30 residents.

“We decided at this time we would not do this. The plan was not clear,” said Selectboard member Sue Lively, who explained that the board has not had adequate time to consider what the forum could accomplish. “We agreed there should still be a conversation.”

After the Selectboard decided on Nov. 29 to name the former school building — which now houses the library, municipal offices, senior center activities and more — the “Heath Community Center,” the board received a barrage of emails from residents denouncing the board’s decision.

Since then, the board decided to rescind its decision during a Jan. 3 meeting. Members are now once again soliciting input from residents about the name.

The building is nearly a 10-minute drive from Heath’s historic town center that includes, among other buildings, Sawyer Hall, Heath Union Church and Community Hall, which recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. Many residents who wrote to the Selectboard were concerned that having the word “center” in the name would confuse people into thinking the municipal building is part of the town center. Others were concerned that with the word “community” in the name, people may confuse the building with Community Hall.

Residents not only expressed anger over the naming of the 18 Jacobs Road building, but also over disinvestment in the town’s more historic buildings as activities such as the library and senior center have been moved to the 18 Jacobs Road building.

Heath Elementary School, built in 1995, closed in 2017 due to declining enrollment, and the town decided in 2019 to keep the building for municipal offices instead of selling it for $250,000 to a cannabis company, another decision that angered some residents.

Speaking in an interview, Lively said the anger from residents has gone on for the past three to four years, but the naming question has resurfaced some of the divisions in the community.

After the roughly 30 emails were received, a group of residents, led by Sheila Litchfield, hoped the town could hold a community forum that would allow residents to air their grievances and share their perspectives in an open dialogue. While the group of citizens can proceed with a forum if they wish, the Selectboard has declined to participate as an elected body.

Litchfield declined to speak with the Greenfield Recorder about the Selectboard’s decision, but said she is unsure whether residents might proceed with a forum.

The Selectboard decided not to participate in a forum during its Jan. 17 meeting. According to the meeting minutes, Selectboard member Brian DeVriese said at the time that the responsibility for the antagonism lies on both sides, though he feels all blame is being pointed at the board. Lively echoed this sentiment, saying healing must come from both sides.

“There have been hard feelings on both sides of the fence and emotions have come through,” Lively said in an interview. She stressed that decisions have to continue to be made and residents shouldn’t linger on things that did not go their way in the past.

Selectboard Chair Robyn Provost-Carlson declined to comment, and instead pointed to the Jan. 17 meeting minutes as a statement on the issue. The minutes note that while Provost-Carlson “applauded anyone who wants to talk about any topic regarding town affairs,” she also noted the Selectboard needs to focus on preparing for Annual Town Meeting and the fiscal year 2024 budget rather than participating in a forum.

Town Coordinator Hilma Sumner suggested having the two ministers in town host a forum about the divisions Heath faces. It was suggested that creating a neutral space with neutral facilitation might foster active listening by the different sides.

“The fact that this has been opened up will lead everyone to think more seriously to think about ways to accomplish healing,” Lively said.

Bella Levavi can be reached at blevavi@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.


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