Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Little schoolhouse now big headache

Little schoolhouse now big headache
By Diane Valden
COPAKE FALLS--The historic Copake Iron Works Schoolhouse on Route 22 at the corner of Bain Road was given to the town six years ago with the intention that it be restored within two years as part of the preservation of the town's heritage.
Now, with restoration deadline past by four years, the donor wants the town to recommit to the project and get it done or give the schoolhouse back.

Since the March 2002 acceptance by the town of the 24-by-40-foot, one-room schoolhouse, which dates from the mid-1800s, little has been done in the way of building restoration, even though the deadline for completion of project was two years from when the building was donated.

In the original donation agreement, lifelong town resident Edgar M. Masters gave the town the schoolhouse, three-quarters of an acre surrounding the structure and $10,000 toward the restoration effort.

The terms of the gift required that the town in cooperation with the Roeliff Jansen Historical Society match Mr. Master's cash contribution two-to-one. The town anteed up $10,000 to add to Mr. Master's $10,000, and the historical society mounted a fundraising campaign that netted another $16,000 for the schoolhouse.
According to financial records provided to The Independent by town Councilwoman Linda Gabaccia, all of that $36,000 has been spent on foundation masonry and floor work.
There is $15,000 designated in the town's 2008 budget for schoolhouse work. In a March 2004 story about the schoolhouse in The Independent, the estimated cost to complete the project was $75,000.Most recently estimates were sought for putting a new roof on the structure.

The town was poised to accept the bid of one roofing contractor, but subsequently found he did not have proper insurance coverage. Currently, the town has two bid proposals for roof work: one from Kevin Carey Building for $35,285 and the other from Pinnacle Roofing, Inc., for $26,500 at non-union non-prevailing wages or $33,750 at state prevailing wages.

At the April Town Board meeting, Schoolhouse Restoration Committee member Ed Ferratto said the Pinnacle estimate would be $9,000 less for asphalt shingles as opposed to cedar shingles.

Yet another aspect of the schoolhouse story is the ongoing questioning by Copake resident John Keeler about how matters relating to the schoolhouse have been handled by the town from the beginning. He has questioned the Town Board on several occasions about how the town can spend money on the schoolhouse when it has so many other necessary expenditures, like skyrocketing fuel costs, roadwork and a highway garage that needs to be fenced in to prevent thefts of road materials and vandalism.

Mr. Keeler questions how the town came to accept the schoolhouse gift in the first place, whether the public had any say about it and whether bid requests for schoolhouse work have been properly advertised.

He has even suggested that the town should save itself any further expense where the schoolhouse is concerned and give it back.
At a special April 25 meeting of the Town Board, the subject of the schoolhouse came up again, with the receipt of a letter to Town Supervisor Reggie Crowley from Mr. Masters. In the letter Mr. Masters wrote, "It is my intention to instruct my attorney to initiate appropriate legal proceedings to compel the return of my cash gift and to re-convey the real property including the schoolhouse to me with all costs, including attorney's fees to be paid by the town if the following conditions are not met by May 8."

Mr. Masters wants all the town funds previously designated in this year's budget to be released so that restoration work can get moving. He also wants the town to approve a resolution at the May Town Board meeting that affirms the Town's "unequivocal commitment to complete the restoration of the building by September 1, 2009, in accordance with standards set by the Board of Directors of the Roe Jan Historical Society."

Town Attorney Kevin Thiemann said the letter did not make it "exactly clear what he wants the town to commit to" or how much has to be done by the date indicated to complete the work. He said he will have to check with Mr. Master's attorney, William F. Ryan, to get clarification.

Roe Jan Historical Society Member Elinor Mettler, who has taken over as chair of the schoolhouse renovation committee, told the board that the town had already invested money in the first step of the renovation, that grants are being sought for project costs and that many community members have already generously donated to the project because they believed in it. She said the town owes it to these people to see this project through.

Though some board members seemed inclined to release the appropriated funds in accordance with Mr. Masters' request, Mr. Thiemann advised against it saying, "If you release the funds and then do not comply with the second stage, you may be subject to legal action."

Councilman Daniel Tompkins noted his commitment to the project and pointed out that the state is investing $2 million in renovations at the nearby Taconic State Park in Copake Falls.

Councilwoman Gabaccia voiced her support for the project, but cautioned the board to investigate the potential financial outlay before taking on any project in the future.

In a phone interview Monday, Mr. Masters said that the determination of project completeness hinges on the Roe Jan Historical Society and "what they wish for the inside [of the building] and that the town has provided funds to complete the project by the specified date."

When he was considering making a gift of the schoolhouse to the town, Mr. Masters said he first approached the historical society about it. Since a precedent had been set with the Old Copake Falls Church, where the town took responsibility for/ownership of the building and the historical society handled the rest, the previous administration accepted it.

The current administration has done nothing but "procrastinate," he said. At the special meeting, the board decided to hold off on any action until the May 8 meeting.

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