By Jennifer Solis
---- — WEST NEWBURY — Just because everyone else in the neighborhood is doing it doesn’t mean West Newbury has to as well.
That appears to be the sentiment of the town’s selectmen when it comes to deciding who pays for tables and chairs in the new cafeteria at Page Elementary School.
During a recent budget discussion, Finance Director Warren Sproul warned selectmen that the town could be on the hook for an additional $16,000 to cover the cost of a furniture upgrade for the expanded cafeteria space.
The debate appears to underscore a larger issue involving growing tension between West Newbury selectmen and their counterparts in Groveland and Merrimac during the development of elementary school leases over the past few months.
Sproul said informal feedback from school officials indicates the district believes West Newbury is responsible for the cost of the cafeteria furniture because the need was triggered by a $10 million renovation at the Page School — a project that was initiated by the town.
As part of a larger renovation, the existing gym became a cafetorium with a goal of reducing the number of lunch periods from seven to three. Currently, lunch periods begin at 10:30 a.m. and run until 1:20 p.m.
School officials said that Groveland and Merrimac, the other two towns in the regional school district, are treating the furniture upgrades in their elementary school renovation projects as capital improvements.
According to the Pentucket Regional Agreement, member towns are responsible for costs associated with new construction and renovations, while costs for ongoing maintenance are a district expense.
But West Newbury selectmen aren’t buying it. “Who’s the arbitrator of the question?” Selectman Dick Cushing asked.
Fellow Selectman Glenn Kemper called it “a slippery slope” and preferred to stick with what’s outlined in the town’s lease and the regional agreement.
“I personally don’t care what the other towns are doing,” he said.
And Page School Principal Jack O’Mara told selectmen, “This is not a bells and whistles request.” He called the current cafeteria furniture “marginal” and stressed that there was no money in the project to replace the tables and chairs.
But after the meeting, selectmen Chairman Bert Knowles questioned comments made by the building committee indicating the school has tables and chairs in storage. He wondered why they weren’t being used and said if it’s because they have outlived their useful life, then that’s something the district must have known and should have addressed as part of regular maintenance.
If, on the other hand, the district contends that the furniture was not in disrepair when it was stored — and therefore didn’t need to be replaced — Knowles wondered why it can’t be used in the new space. Either way, he doesn’t see it as a bill West Newbury taxpayers should have to cover.
The issue appears to be bigger than the $16,000 price tag for lunchroom furniture and spills into the drafting of elementary school leases in recent months.
The district has historically paid the member towns $1 annually for use of the elementary schools. But for some reason, while West Newbury has a formal, signed lease with the district, similar agreements have not existed in Groveland and Merrimac. This year, officials in those towns have worked on developing leases. At the same time, West Newbury has tackled renewing its lease, which is due to expire in June.
Issues arose, however, when wording governing how emergency repairs are to be handled differed between the three communities. In Groveland and Merrimac’s leases, emergency repairs would be initiated by the towns, but West Newbury chose to stick with existing language in its lease that gave the school district the authority to handle the work.
The regional agreement states that “responsibilities for maintenance of elementary school buildings shall be uniform” within all three leases, but that clause does not refer to emergency repairs.
West Newbury selectmen were frustrated by Groveland and Merrimac officials’ interest in this clause of the Page School lease agreement and by the implication that it was “non-conforming” — especially given the clause has always existed in the Page School lease.
Cushing said a recent news report that Merrimac Selectman Rick Pinciaro was contending that West Newbury is now “marching to the same beat as its partner towns” left him and his fellow board members “scratching our heads.” Cushing said his board hasn’t agreed to any changes in its lease.
So, West Newbury selectmen said to learn their town should pay for furniture costs simply because that’s what the other towns are doing didn’t sit well with them.
“Nobody wants to see the kids having 10:30 lunches, but whose responsibility is it?” Kemper asked. “Sometimes you have to take a stand and not be pushed around.”
According to Pentucket Business Manager Michael Bergeron, the School Committee has yet to make a formal request for the $16,000 from the town. Currently, all existing inventory in storage is being evaluated. He said he will report back to West Newbury selectmen once that process is completed, which should hopefully be later this week.