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WEST SPRINGFIELD — Mayor William Reichelt made his case for a new school, and members of the Town Council pushed back with several questions at a recent meeting.

Councilors cast a critical eye on the need to replace the town’s 1950s and ’60s schools, the taxpayers’ willingness to shoulder another major construction bond, and their perception that they are being rushed to this decision at their March 11 meeting.

The School Committee had voted on Feb. 27 to submit a statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority seeking state assistance in building an elementary school covering pre-kindergarten to grade 5 that would replace Fausey School and John Ashley Kindergarten. The Town Council must approve the statement before it can be sent. This year’s application deadline is April 12.

Submitting a statement to the MSBA is the start of what could be a decade-long process, Reichelt said. The state agency only accepts a limited number of new projects each year; some towns have to wait several years for their project to start. Once a project is accepted, the MSBA sends a team to look at building needs in the school district, and the town forms a committee to determine community preferences. Later a designer is hired to create several possible plans. One vision is chosen, the committee asks the Town Council for funding, and only then can a builder be engaged.

Construction wouldn’t begin until about a decade from now, Reichelt said. He said payments on previously bonded projects will drop from over $3 million a year to under $1 million a year in fiscal year 2038, which would be a good time to take out a new bond.

Councilor Daniel O’Brien pointed to the recent citizen petition and School Committee vote to reverse the decision to close Mittineague School, built in 1871 and “still in good shape.” He said West Springfield residents want to keep their current neighborhood schools, just with more investment in maintenance and renovations.

Reichelt countered with the example of Coburn School, where a brand-new building opened in 2022 to replace a century-old facility. The other schools in town are not unsafe, he said, but they won’t last forever.

“We have the opportunity to build something like Coburn that will last 100 years, and have the state pay for it,” Reichelt said. He pictured a scenario, without building a new school, of “in 50 years, when we don’t have any new schools and people aren’t moving here anymore.”

Councilor Michael LaFlamme took issue with that argument. He said Longmeadow is considered the best school district in Western Massachusetts and a desirable town to move to, but all three of its elementary schools are “relatively old.” Agawam, he said, continues to attract families even though it hasn’t built a new school since the 1970s.

“We’ve invested into schools as much as anyone around us,” LaFlamme added, mentioning the new Coburn, the new high school that opened in 2014, the middle school built in 1999 and renovations to Clark Field last year. “When it comes to facilities, we’re there.”

LaFlamme suggested renovations at the elementary schools, redrawing the elementary enrollment boundaries to make the most efficient use of space, and investing money in improving the quality of education.

In his presentation to the Town Council, Reichelt had said if enrollment stays at current levels, there isn’t enough room in current school buildings to meet the School Committee’s goals of moving all kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classrooms, and all English language learners, into their neighborhood schools. All of the elementary schools, other than Coburn, need new roofs. Many need significant parking lot renovations. Most no longer have art or music classrooms, because space was needed for more homerooms. Two schools, John Ashley and Tatham School, use modular (temporary) classrooms that are nearing the end of their lifespan.

He said there’s “no guarantee of how much exactly it would cost,” but a consultant’s estimate of the renovation costs at the town’s aging schools is $94 million.

Reichelt said the cost of a new elementary school is likely around $100 million. Assuming West Springfield can get similar level of state reimbursement to what it received for Coburn and the high school, the cost to local taxpayers would be around $30 million, he said.

The state also has a reimbursement program for smaller renovation projects, O’Brien said. He said he’d like to pursue that route and asked if Reichelt and the School Department had considered it. Reichelt said they would look at that program if the council rejected the statement of interest for new construction.

Councilor William Forfa, however, said he prefers new construction because it’s easier to control and there are no surprises. Everything is built according to code from day 1, he said, as opposed to finding unknown problems in the existing structure that need to be corrected.

“When you get a rehab price, that’s never stable,” Forfa said. “It’s always going to be a lot more expensive and a lot more in the dark area.”

The mayor agreed, stating that Coburn and the high school both came in under budget, while none of the renovation projects he’s overseen have.

The council did not take a vote on March 11. To meet the MSBA deadline of April 12, the council placed the item on its agenda for March 18, after The Reminder’s deadline. Councilor Brian Griffin objected to the timeline of the vote.

“This is the first time the council has seen a presentation on this issue,” he said. “Regardless of what has happened prior to this stage or not, in the future we have to do better. …  From the standpoint of making a fiduciary decision on behalf of the town, it is very tough for us to say, we’re going to have a presentation at a special meeting on Monday and make a decision seven days later.”

Both he and O’Brien said they were also surprised to see Fausey singled out as the school to be replaced, as previous conversations had centered on Memorial and Tatham schools, both of which are smaller and were built in 1952, as opposed to Fausey built in 1960.

Fausey was chosen as the school to be replaced because it’s the only one with a site large enough to accommodate a construction project while all classes continue uninterrupted in the existing school, Reichelt said. There’s enough room on what are now the school athletic fields to fit an entire building large enough to handle Fausey’s current population, plus pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms.

He said the Memorial property has enough room for an addition. Construction options at Tatham are hemmed in by protected park land and a major water line that cuts across the property. Mittineague sits on the smallest school site in town.

mballway@thereminder.com | + posts