HOLYOKE — The Council is set to take up a $475,000 request for the city to fund the design phase for a new middle school — an early step in the process of receiving funding from the state for constructing a new building.
The City Council’s Finance Committee this week advanced to the full council, by a 3-2 vote, the request to bond for the $475,000 needed to conduct a feasibility study for building one new middle school building at the current site of William R. Peck Middle School. When the City Council meets next week, nine councilors will have to vote to issue the bond.
Paying for the feasibility study is the next step needed to move forward in the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s process for securing reimbursement for a substantial portion of construction costs for the new school. The MSBA requires that the money for the study is appropriated before proceeding.
In 2019, most of Holyoke’s elected officials supported the construction of two new middle schools in the city — one at Peck Middle School and the other at H.B. Lawrence Elementary School. The $130 million projects, which were set to receive $75.8 million from the MSBA, would have replaced two of the district’s buildings most in need of replacement.
The costs of the project and the amount the state chose to reimburse, however, meant that residents had to vote on a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override to cover the remaining $54 million. Those opposed to the plans raised concerns over the tax increase and the process the city undertook to put the ballot question in front of voters. And when voters headed to the ballot box, 64% of them voted to reject the proposal.
Normally, it takes years for a school district to get back into the MSBA’s queue if it votes to reject a building project. But the quasi-public authority quickly re-invited the city back into the process, this time focusing on a smaller project by building only one, 550-student school.
Some of the more vocal opponents of the failed middle school project in 2019 are either incumbents on the council or new members voted into office in November.
At-large Councilor Kevin Jourdain was one of those who took part in the “no” campaign in 2019, and raised numerous questions during three public hearings in the council’s Finance Committee over the past month. He and new Ward 2 Councilor Will Puello voted in the minority not to recommend approval of the $475,000 feasibility study, with At-large Councilor Joseph McGiverin, Ward 6 Councilor Juan Anderson-Burgos and At-large Councilor Peter Tallman voting to support the request.
At an initial hearing before the committee on Jan. 10, at-large School Committee member Erin Brunelle explained that the earliest a new school could open would be in the fall of 2026. She pointed to a February 2021 analysis from the city’s financial advisors at the firm HilltopSecurities, which she said showed that with capital debt that will be coming off the books, the city could afford to issue a 30-year bond in 2024 at a 4.5% interest rate and maintain the same level of debt it has now.
The city put together a 16-member School Building Committee in the fall. The committee will learn in June whether the MSBA has invited the school district into its next phase of the process — the feasibility study phase. The money for the study has to be appropriated by April 29.
During the City Council’s three hearings, Jourdain asked questions of officials from the school department, City Hall and the city’s advisors about how the school project will impact the budget in future years and whether it would result in the need for a tax override vote in the future for other municipal costs. Without assurances that an override won’t be needed in the coming years, he said the city is wasting half a million dollars on a feasibility study without having a grasp on what other costs might be coming down the road.
“It’s like a balloon, if you squeeze here it bulges out and pops out over here,” Jourdain said. If the city ends up paying $1.3 million yearly on a 30-year bond, for example, on debt service for the project, he said he’d want to know they could do that “without causing distress to other areas.”
Others, however, noted that the current request is just for the money for a feasibility study, without which nothing can move forward. The details of the final project and a bond for it will be discussed and voted on later, they said.
“Here we’re just looking for a vote to secure funds that we might not even need to get us to the next phase so we can do the number crunching necessary and include that with the analysis you’re looking for,” Mayor Joshua Garcia said.
But inevitably, both sides spent much of their time discussing what that bond would look like and whether it would be affordable.
“Can we afford not to do this?” McGiverin asked, saying that failing to do something about dilapidated school buildings now will amount to simply passing the unaffordability onto the city’s next generations. “And that’s wrong.”
Mayor Joshua Garcia said that he agreed with Jourdain that the city needs to be looking out into the future to understand how to best use the city’s resources. He said that he is working with the state Department of Revenue to get technical assistance for longer-term financial forecasting — something the city currently doesn’t do. Garcia also said he intends to develop a capital plan that will assess the city’s assets and determine what the spending priorities should be.
Cinder McNerney, the city’s longtime financial advisor with HilltopSecurities, pointed out that unlike many other communities, Holyoke doesn’t have a capital plan that would assess the next five years of possible capital spending. Without that, she said, the city can’t assess their spending priorities. She said that if the city waits to get many of those questions answered now, it might miss the opportunity to tackle a project during better market conditions.
“Had this school been issued, you would have probably saved a lot of money locking in rates,” McNerney said. “Now you’re in a different interest rate market.”
Ward 5 Councilor Linda Vacon also expressed the need for a capital plan and concerns about the cost of the project. She said she wants to be able to adequately answer questions about affordability when taxpayers come to her with those inevitable questions.
Whitney Anderson, the Holyoke Public Schools maintenance administrator, explained the urgent need to replace Peck Middle School, noting that parts aren’t available for its antiquated electrical system and heating components, for example. He said that he’s excited for a new school for the city’s children.
“I’m even more excited about getting this thing off the portfolio,” he said, expressing concern that if a catastrophic failure occurred, the city would have to abandon the structure and be on the hook for far more money. “Not to be doom and gloom, but those are the realities.”
City councilors who were not on the Finance Committee attended the hearings and weighed in on the future of the project. They will all vote on whether to appropriate money toward the building construction on Tuesday evening.
Speaking at a Feb. 7 hearing, At-large Councilor Israel Rivera said that the council is likely to take up many more funding requests with little controversy. But when it comes to education, he added, “for some reason there’s always a million questions.”
Dusty Christensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.