Mary Lyon celebrates $2.4M for West County schools

  • Mary Lyon Foundation co-directors Sue Samoriski, left, and Sheila Damkoehler thanked for their fundraising efforts by Mohawk Superintendent Michael Buoniconti. Recorder photo/DIANE BRONCACCIO—

  • Mary Lyon Founder Sue Samoriski is thanked for her fundraising work by Mohawk Superintendent Michael Buoniconti Monday night at a celebration at Mohawk. Recorder photo/DIANE BRONCACCIO—

  • Doug Wilkins of Heath explains a creative financing plan that enabled the Mary Lyon Foundation to leverage state school money for equipment in Mohawk, Hawlemont schools. Recorder photo/DIANE BRONCACCIO—

Recorder Staff
Tuesday, January 30, 2018

BUCKLAND — This is how the Mary Lyon Education Foundation raised $677,302 for major capital projects at West County schools, and turned it into $2.4 million: with a 72 percent match from the state over the last 22 years.

Mary Lyon co-directors Sue Samoriski and Sheila Damkoehler gave the Mohawk superintendent the final $35,025 capital loan payment, the last of the bond repayments for school equipment purchased in conjunction with major renovations that began in the 1990s.

On Monday evening was a celebratory potluck that included Mohawk Trail Regional School District Committee members and the Mary Lyon Foundation board. In addition to the spread of food in the Mohawk cafeteria, fundraising displays for the Hawlemont and Mohawk schools showed how much money the foundation raised for each school — with the state matching every $28 raised with another $72.

Doug Wilkins of Heath was the Mohawk Trail Regional School District’s first technology director, hired in 1975 to rewire the school buildings for the then-new computer network called the Internet, and he worked out the creative fundraising approach with Mary Lyon founder Samoriski.

When Heath wanted to build its own school in 1995, Wilkins and Samoriski discovered that the state Massachusetts School Building Assistance Bureau would not only pay a 72 percent match for school building brick-and-mortar projects, like the Heath Elementary School, but would also provide a nearly three-to-one-match for additional school equipment, up to the approved limit, as long as it was approved by the town.

“Our towns did not include equipment in the project, as they did not feel able to pay the additional cost,” said Marion Taylor of Shelburne, a longtime Mohawk School Committee chairwoman and past president of the Mary Lyon Foundation.

How it all worked out

The fundraiser began with home meetings in Heath, where Wilkins and Samoriski would give presentations of how the money raised would generate the larger match from the state. Their goal was to raise $60,000 in this small community of 700 residents. Instead, they raised $76,000.

Similar fundraising efforts for equipment were later done for other schools where school building projects were approved by the School Building Assistance Bureau (now called the School Building Authority). These included renovations at Colrain Central, Buckland Shelburne Elementary School, the new Sanderson Academy building, and the expansion of the Mohawk Trail Regional School in the 1990s. According to Taylor, Mary Lyon raised $601,302 for equipment from Mohawk, Colrain, Buckland-Shelburne and Sanderson. The money raised, with state matching funds, paid for a new track for Mohawk, an expanded gymnasium, computer labs, school library collections, a TV studio at Mohawk, playground equipment, science equipment and other items.

After the 50-year-old Rowe Elementary School burned down in 2012, the Mary Lyon Foundation organized a capital campaign for the new school, which was built from insurance money and did not use any matching funds from the state School Building Authority. That capital campaign included a fundraising auction at Berkshire East and a $40,000 grant awarded by Dollar General for the Rowe School library.

All the local debt was financed by bonds to be paid over several years by the towns, according to Taylor.

“Since we already had the funds for our match, we offered to transfer the funds we had raised to the towns, for them to hold for the local match,” she said. “This was done with Heath, but the other towns determined it would be better for the Mary Lyon Foundation to pay the state required amount due on a regular bond payment schedule, like the towns. A 16-year payment schedule was established, like that of the towns,” Taylor said, “and we have been paying back each year. This payment of $35,025 is our sixteenth and final one.”

Wilkins explained that taking out loans for the entire amount — in which the interest was reimbursed 72 percent by the state — made more sense than paying off the town’s matching share directly.

“Imagine you and I are buying a $100,000 house together, and we agree each to pay half for it,” said Wilkins. “You take out a mortgage for $50,000, while I pay with cash. The way the state works, I would still have to pay half of your interest. In the case of the building projects, the state would only cover 72 percent of the bond interest. They don’t care if you pay cash for your share of the principal.”

Wilkins said taking out a bond for the entire amount of the added funding allowed Mary Lyon Foundation to invest the money raised for the towns’ share. The loan was repaid with the state paying its share of the interest and Mary Lyon paying the towns’ share from the interest earned on the invested donations.

“You don’t know how much anxiety that caused,” Wilkins said. “We had to rely on people shepherding that $670,000 over the past 17 years.”

“That’s the art of real financing,” said Sylvia Orcutt, current Mary Lyon Foundation president.

In Colrain, according to Samoriski, a letter was sent to every resident requesting donations, and one resident donated a parcel of land. The Mary Lyon Foundation sold the land for $20,000, with leveraged nearly $60,000 more from the state, she said.

When Samoriski and Wilkins were explaining their financing proposal in Boston, the School Building Authority people left the meeting to privately discuss it. Then they returned to Samoriski and Wilkins. “They said, what you’re proposing is legal. Yes, you can do it — but don’t tell anybody,” Samoriski said.

School Committee member Suzanne Crawford of Hawley praised Mary Lyon as an organization “that enables us all to think about what we want for our schools.”