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Parents, Neighbors Argue for Sullivan Option
Tammy Daniels,
12:03AM / Friday, April 29, 2011

Parents and residents raise their hands to ask questions about the school building project at Sullivan Elementary School.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Parents and neighbors of Sullivan Elementary School expressed their displeasure for nearly three hours on Thursday night at the idea of closing the school in favor of resurrecting Conte School.

"This is a safe neighborhood and a great place to have a school," said one man. "Why are we going to invest in a school that's falling apart? ... I would rather have a new school rather than have a middle school in the middle of town."

More than 60 parents and community members, the largest crowd so far, sat at lunch tables in the stuffy Sullivan cafeteria to hear the latest presentation on options to deal with the closure of the middle school, which happened two years ago.

The architects flipped through the school buildings noting the pros — strong neighborhoods, good bones — and the cons — the lack of energy efficiency and program space, and outdated design. In the mix are Greylock and Sullivan elementary schools and Conte for five options for renovation and rebuilding to address the educational needs of 620 students.

Superintendent James Montepare, Mayor Richard Alcombright and Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco answer questions from citizens.

Renovating the century-old Conte in the downtown has emerged as the preferred option over Sullivan's problematic configuration of levels and tight space on the side of a hill.

While there has been little debate over renovating or building new at the Greylock site, the possibility of closing the 45-year-old Sullivan on quiet Kemp Avenue and sending the kindergarten through Grade 7 pupils to Conte has alarmed some.

Parents raised concerns over traffic, safety and small children walking to the downtown location. "I don't want my daughter walking down Eagle Street," said one. Another mother spoke of seeing suspicious characters watching the middle school children exit Conte when it was open. 

Superintendent James Montepare said school officials were discussing the issue of children walking downtown, which has been raised as earlier sessions, but disputed the idea of people "lurking" about the school.

"There was always a police officer in the school and a police officer on the corner in a cruiser waiting for the kids to [get out]," said Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco, who conceded there had been problems with the middle school children.

"They were old enough to be trucking around by themselves," he said. "I do not see that problem when you're talking about grammar school children."

But the commissioner got into a bit of a shouting match with City Councilor Lisa Blackmer, who pointed out that two sexual assaults on children had occurred near Conte and at the library across the street.

"The one thing I keep hearing about is public safety," said Blackmer. "And the fact that nobody considered the traffic astounds me."

Morocco retorted that the downtown "is as safe as it ever was ... You show me the figures that show me it's not safe."

Blackmer said Sullivan should have more represention on the school building committee.

"I don't think anybody is really listening to their concerns," she said. "I have real apprehension about kids this age being in the downtown."

The school building committee and some city officials were pleased to see Conte as one of the options, but Sullivan supporters accused school officials of pushing the renovation of the former high school over Sullivan.

"It feels like the powers that be prefer Conte," said Angelica Parades, who said she'd rather see her son go to the Berkshire Arts and Technology Public Charter School — on busy Commercial Street in Adams — than go to Conte.

Former Mayor John Barrett III weighed in, suggesting holding off on the project and ensuring the preservation of the neighborhood schools.

"I don't think we should kick the can down the road for the next generation," he said, urging the School Committee to have an "open and transparent vote" on their preferred option. "I think that the Conte School can be used for a better purpose."

Mayor Richard Alcombright said the question was not can we afford it, but "can we afford not to do it?" The MSBA's 80 percent reimbursement may not be there in the future and constrution costs are likely to rise, he said.

John Bedard, a frequent and outspoken critic of the plan, warned that voters won't forget if Sullivan closed.

"If you do push this agenda through you know it will be against the will of the people and it will show in the next election," said Bedard. "I probably have 400 signatures on a petition to save this school ... I'll drive this down to Boston to the MSBA to prove that we don't want this."

Montepare countered that other than Bedard and Thursday's audience, he had received no calls or emails against the Conte option.

"I'm not the one who's pushing Conte; all the questions that have been coming my way have been about Conte," said Montepare. "I'm happy to have two neighborhood schools anyplace."

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