WE ARE HOMETOWN NEWS.

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Councilors this month wanted more details before they could get behind plans for a new elementary school. The mayor wants to ask for a new school now and fine-tune the details as the proposal moves through the system. Which approach the town takes may be decided by a vote at the April 1 meeting of the Town Council.

Mayor William Reichelt on March 18 asked councilors to support statements of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, seeking state reimbursement for building a new pre-kindergarten to grade 5 school to replace Fausey School and John Ashley Kindergarten. The planning process would take years, he said, and the MSBA may not approve it on the first try.

Councilor Daniel O’Brien said the question of whether West Springfield even needs a new elementary school should be brought to voters first, in the form of a ballot question, before the School Committee and Town Council vote to involve the state. He said that was the route taken by Agawam and East Longmeadow.

Reichelt said those towns’ votes only came — or, in Agawam’s case, will come — after their officials had gone through years of planning with the MSBA. The ballot questions are not preliminary polls on whether to build a school, but final proposals that need taxpayer approval for bonding. He said voters have elected the mayor, councilors and School Committee to be their representatives and make decisions without turning to a referendum each time.

O’Brien also suggested pursuing renovation of the five existing elementary schools rather than building a new one. Reichelt said his plan is both to replace Fausey and to renovate the other old buildings, and that part of the MSBA process is to take stock of all elementary schools. The MSBA could fund renovations instead of construction if it deems that option the most cost-effective, he said.

Town resident Mustafa Thompson agreed with Reichelt, and added that as a parent and taxpayer, “we don’t want to keep putting money into old, falling-apart buildings.” While he acknowledged that nearly 2,700 people signed a petition asking the School Committee not to close Mittineague School — the town’s oldest current school building — that represents only a small fraction of the nearly 30,000 residents in West Springfield.

Erin Placey, one of the organizers of the petition, said although the effort was focused on saving Mittineague School, she feels based on the conversations she had with many signers from other parts of town that it was a strong statement in favor of neighborhood schools in general. Replacing Fausey with a large new school could result in other schools being closed, she said.

District 2 Councilor Michael LaFlamme also said he wanted to clarify how building a new school would affect Mittineague, and District 4 Councilor Fred Connor sought more information on state funding of renovation projects.

In order to be considered for the 2024 round of MSBA approvals, the town would have to submit its statement of interest by April 12. Council President Sean Powers said he’d like to hear from more town residents, and take a vote, at the council’s April 1 meeting, at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.

Hotel tax hike

At their April 1 meeting, councilors also plan to vote on whether to raise the excise tax on hotel rooms. Raising the tax, which is paid by anyone who stays at a West Springfield hotel or motel, would provide more tax revenue to the town, but O’Brien said he opposes it, as higher consumer taxes make life more difficult for people on fixed incomes, and a higher rooms tax makes it less likely that travelers will leave generous tips for housekeepers. He also cited a more general opposition to increased taxes.

“I’m not in favor of increasing any tax on anybody,” he said. “I don’t think we spend the money wisely when we get it.”

Connor, on the other hand, said he’s heard from police and firefighters about “the inordinate time they spend on calls to hotels and motels,” and a higher tax could be an appropriate as a means of paying for the public safety services visitors receive.

mballway@thereminder.com | + posts