Mass. Towns Vote Not To Pay Off Pair of School-ConstructionLoans

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A group of small towns in western Massachusetts has voted not to pay off a pair of school-construction loans in an act of defiance meant to send a message to state leaders.

The towns object to proposals to cut community aid and school funding and eliminate another program designed to boost the funding of small school districts.

And in case the act of defaulting on the loans does not get the state's attention, a local school principal intends to walk the 80 miles to Boston early next month to explain residents' frustrations in person.

"People here are just very upset," said Marion Taylor, chairman of the Mohawk Trail Regional School Committee.

The Mohawk regional district, which is at the center of the rebellion, consists of eight small towns where unemployment is high, local taxes are going up, and state funding is growing more and more scarce.

Officials in five of the towns--Ashfield, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, and Shelburne--recently voted to stop payments on a $230,000 loan for a 1988 project to construct a handicapped-access ramp at Mohawk Trail High School, which is shared by all eight towns. Two other towns, Heath and Plainfield, may join the five in defaulting on that loan, while the town of Hawley voted to continue repaying the loan.

The towns of Buckland and Shelburne also agreed to default on a $285,000 loan for a roof repair done three years ago at the elementary school they share.

Town officials say that when the loans were taken out with local banks, the state told them they would be reimbursed for some of the funds. That has not happened, they say.

A spokesman for the state education department said last week that the roofing project had never been approved by the state.

For the ramp project, which was funded under a federal program, the district received half of the funds due, the spokesman said, and would receive the balance once it supplied the state with audit materials.

Growing Frustrations

Local officials last week said that school administrators and residents alike have become increasingly frustrated by the state's treatment of the area during the current budget crisis.

Ms. Taylor explained the exasperation: State aid to the local towns, as well as funding for the school districts, is likely to shrink next year. In addition, Gov. William Weld has proposed abolishing a program designed to aid isolated small-town districts.

Furthermore, Ms. Taylor said, local property taxes will have to increase to help shore up the sagging state funds.

So, in addition to devastating local budgets, local officials believe the state's budget remedy will hurt their ability to replace the funds.

To maintain this year's funding, the towns in the Mohawk Trail region would have to raise local property taxes from $0.13 to $0.20 per $100 of assessed property value. Two of the towns have already defeated a school-tax increase, one has passed it, three more will vote June 4, and the other two have postponed a tax referendum.

Paul Swem, principal at the region's elementary school, plans to carry the local sentiments with him to Boston next month, and a spokesman for the Mohawk Trail district added, "We think a lot of people will join us on the way."

While local officials admit they have resorted to an "unorthodox" means of revolt, they noted that town and school officials are "looking for any way that we can to make a statement," according to Catherine Heyl, a Mohawk Trail spokesman, even if it means added difficulty in funding future construction projects.

"There is some risk, depending on how far it goes," she said. "But we are hoping that the state will respond."

Vol. 10, Issue 36

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