NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

February 4, 2013

School board OKs West Newbury's lease agreement

Document is slightly different from that of Merrimac, Groveland

BY JENNIFER SOLIS
CORRESPONDENT

---- — WEST NEWBURY — The Pentucket School Committee has approved language in an agreement with the town of West Newbury that is slightly different than wording in similar agreements with the other two towns in the regional school district.

The difference lies in who undertakes emergency repairs on Pentucket’s four elementary school buildings.

At least one committee member, Chris Reading of West Newbury, is concerned that the difference could be viewed by the state as out of sync with the Pentucket Regional Agreement, the document that binds the three towns together into a regional school district.

In practice, West Newbury, Groveland and Merrimac lease their elementary school buildings to Pentucket, but West Newbury is the only town to hold a formalized lease agreement.

Work on finalizing leases with all three towns is nearing its conclusion. In general the proposed leases state that the district will rent the elementary school buildings for $1. The leases run from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2030. West Newbury’s current lease expires in June.

The leases state that responsibility for improvements, maintenance, repairs and replacements should be determined in accordance with the regional agreement. According to a stipulation in a recently adopted update of the regional document, when it comes to maintenance, the language in all leases must be identical.

Last November the Pentucket board approved language for leases with Groveland and Merrimac stating that the district must notify selectmen in writing of any emergency work needed on a town’s elementary school. Within three hours of receiving the written notification, the town will acknowledge the emergency and proceed with the repair, the leases state.

But language approved on Tuesday for the lease of the Dr. John C. Page Elementary School in West Newbury differs. West Newbury is choosing instead to maintain the same wording in its emergency repair clause that exists in its current agreement. In this case, the district is still obligated to notify town leaders but it is the district — not the town — that is tasked with undertaking any emergency repairs.

The school board acknowledged that the language adopted by Groveland and Merrimac reflects, in part, dissatisfaction with the manner in which the district handled a mold and asbestos remediation project at the Donaghue Elementary School in Merrimac in 2010-2011.

But because they have always had a good working relationship with Pentucket officials when it comes to repairs at Page, selectmen in West Newbury saw no reason to alter the established procedure in their upcoming lease, Selectman Glenn Kemper explained on Wednesday.

West Newbury’s town counsel, Michael McCarron, notes that the maintenance provisions of the leases are uniform. “Since the responsibility for payment of (emergency) repairs is vested with the individual towns, it’s only the process by which those repairs are undertaken that is different,” he said.

Pentucket Chairman Brian Page of Merrimac worried that the language in West Newbury’s lease could create a possible scenario where Pentucket is left with a bill for work on Page School for which the town — for some reason — refuses to reimburse the district.

Wouldn’t that mean the other two towns are left liable for the repair costs as well? Reading asked. Her colleague from West Newbury, Jill Eichhorst, also expressed concern that the West Newbury’s lease is “pulling further and further away from the other two leases.”

But Joe D’Amore of Groveland said officials in his town and in Merrimac were specifically asked during a Regional Finance Advisory meeting whether they felt the language discrepancy gave West Newbury an unfair benefit — and the answer was no.

“We have two partners who feel there’s not an advantage,” he told the committee.

Pentucket’s business manager, Michael Bergeron, said that while technically an unpaid liability could be assessed to an individual town, he didn’t anticipate that being necessary. Estimates will be provided for proposed work as part of the approval process for any emergency repair. Before moving forward with any repair the town and the district will have reached an understanding of what is being done and how much it will cost, he said.

Bergeron said it is important to remember that the regional school district both exists to serve the towns and is also an extension of the towns in providing valuable educational services.

“West Newbury is us and we are West Newbury,” he said.

Ultimately, the board agreed to give Groveland and Merrimac 30 days to adopt a clause similar to the one in West Newbury’s lease, if they so choose.

According to Bergeron the next step in the lease process is “to have the School Committee vote to approve all the leases at one time during a public meeting and then have the chair of the School Committee sign them.”

Reading asked that Bergeron check with the state to make sure the documents aren’t in conflict with the regional agreement.

Wording in West Newbury’s lease pertaining to the Children’s Castle, a privately owned childcare center housed in a portion of Page School, still needs the board’s approval.