Hadley leaders replace $1.2M Russell School warrant article with $40K reuse study

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-01-2023 11:18 AM

HADLEY — Residents at annual Town Meeting next month will not get a chance to weigh in on investing more than $1 million into the aging Russell School building in town center, but instead will consider a significantly smaller expenditure for a feasibility study on the 1894 structure.

A $1.24 million plan to stabilize the building, proposed by the Russell School Committee using Community Preservation Act money, is being replaced by an article on the May 4 Town Meeting warrant calling for spending $40,000 from the CPA account, recommended by the Select Board, the Finance Committee and the CPA Committee at a joint meeting April 19.

A larger appropriation could still be brought to a special Town Meeting in the fall, but likely only after the Select Board engages a company to undertake a reuse feasibility study for the Russell School.

“The Select Board feels very strongly that we don’t want to spend money without a feasibility study,” said Select Board member Jane Nevinsmith.

Nevinsmith said that it would be a disservice to residents if they don’t have complete information about the potential costs, observing that the initial plans for a new library building were rejected several years ago because the proposal displaced senior citizens without a plan to meet their needs.

Town Administrator Carolyn Brennan said the feasibility study will give the town options, aside from stabilizing the building, ranging from complete demolition to wholesale renovation. “Part of these options we may choose, (and) stabilization may be part of a renovation,” Brennan said.

A feasibility study is an essential first step, said board member Joyce Chunglo. “I’m certainly for having a feasibility study so that we can get this done and everyone can know what needs to be done and where we’re going to go with it,” Chunglo said.

Similarly, board member Randy Izer endorsed this approach. “As Jane said, we need the right numbers in order to make a good decision,” Izer said.

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The action came following a memo from the financial team of Brennan, Treasurer Linda Sanderson, Collector Susan Glowatsky and Assessor Dan Zdonek recommending that a feasibility study for reuse of the Russell School be funded at annual Town Meeting, and that the study be fully completed before any construction costs are incurred.

The team’s memo pointed to survey results collected by the Russell School Committee showing that 58% of residents don’t find it “very important” to stabilize the building, and that almost two-thirds of residents are not interested in retaining and rehabilitating the building for town use. In addition, 28% of residents said it is “very important” to demolish the building and retain the property for future town use.

Sanderson said the data counters the Russell School Committee’s contention that there is an immediate need for significant work. While that may happen, there’s no need to rush. “The purpose of bringing out that 58% don’t think it’s very important pulls away from the sense of urgency that has been given to the project,” Sanderson said.

Finance Committee Chairman David Fill said there will be costs to insure and maintain the building going forward.

Members of the Russell School Committee were limited in their input during the conversation, though member Dan Regish used the public comment period of the Select Board’s meeting to criticize the way town officials have handled the matter, noting that the Russell School roof is leaking and nothing is being done to prevent more deterioration.

“Really disappointed with the shameless and disrespectful reaction to the survey that the people filled out,” Regish said.

“They’re expecting to have forward motion on this.”

Russell School Committee Chairwoman Courtney Meyer said her committee will not support the reuse study article coming to Town Meeting. She noted that the survey showed stabilization was the most popular option in the survey.

The CPA Committee, in addition to recommending the replacement article 5-0, with member Edwin Matuszko abstaining, also voted 4-0, with Matuszko and Andy Morris-Friedman abstaining, to withdraw support for the $1.24 million stabilization project.

“We’re just saying this is not the correct time,” said CPA Committee Chairwoman Mary Thayer.

Matuszko expressed frustration that the committee was being asked to change course two weeks before Town Meeting. “That’s wrong. You don’t wait until the deadline is about to be done and then say we need this money. That’s wrong,” Matuszko said.

Morris-Friedman said, though, this might speed up the process so the more significant spending will be ready for action in the fall. “This is the best way to get the project approved, that the proposal wasn’t quite ready,” Morris Friedman said.

Mark Dunn, a member of the Planning Board who serves on the CPA Committee, said his belief was that if $1.2 million wasn’t immediately spent, the building might collapse. Brennan said aside from an earthquake, she believes the building is not going anywhere.

Nevinsmith acknowledged the roof leaks, but otherwise there is time. “It may get a little wetter, but it’s not going to fall apart,” Nevinsmith said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>