The faculty and staff of Monument Mountain Regional High School are to be congratulated for running a fine educational program in a 50-year-old building with a leaky roof, poor ventilation, bursting pipes and a boiler that threatens to quit for good each winter. Built with a flat roof for reasons no one can now understand, the building has an advanced case of what real estate investors call deferred maintenance, the result of 50 years of prudent management by school boards determined to spare the taxpayer every expense.
Even the state government, which typically cares little for anything that goes on west of Route 495, says the building needs fixing, and has offered to pay nearly half the cost to renovate it to 21st Century standards. A $56 million plan was rejected last year by voters in Great Barrington, the largest town in the district and so on the hook for the most costs. Now, stripped of anything that might be considered a frill, the plan is back before voters on the Nov. 4 ballot.
It has been an ugly campaign. The loudest voices against the renovation have come from older people who no longer have children in school, if they ever did. Anyone who knows the faces behind the names can see the self-interest in the arguments they are making. The letters pages of the local newspapers, the Facebook pages of local officials and neighborhood listservs are filled with complaints of how taxes are already too high, how free riders under school choice are sucking us dry, and how profligate public officials want to throw our money at problems that should not be ours. Great Barrington they say, has a declining student population, and should be building a smaller high school to serve only the children of the district. Every well-worn cliché: “Taj Mahal,” “Edifice complex,” “Trophy School,” has been deployed. People massage the numbers, or make up their own to suit. One man has come out with an alternative plan that saves a few million but, among other things, fails to meet state building standards and leaves out any fee for an architect’s stamp on the blueprint. A phantom mailing by a front group for the Republican Town Committee says the “tax increasers” want to force poor people from their homes, as if we were not all in this together.
Let’s take the high road for a minute: it is the town’s responsibility to provide the children of taxpayers with an adequate secondary education. This requires a building to keep them warm and dry and secure while they learn. The School Committee, not some bureaucratic cabal in Boston but our neighbors who pay the same taxes we do, has spent years crunching numbers and playing out the scenarios where we get a halfway decent renovation for not too much money. Committee Chair Steve Bannon, whose parsimony and tightfistedness has seen him re-elected for 17 straight years to this thankless task, says this is the best deal we can get with the state paying half the freight. He says it will actually be more expensive to fix things as they break. He does not pretend there is a way to avoid a tax increase. Do we suddenly think he is not an honest man?
It is true, as the opponents say, that the reimbursements under school choice do not come close to the actual cost of educating a student, but this is an inequity that must be solved in Boston where they do not seem to think it is much of a problem. Certainly, it is not going to be solved before Election Day. Even if we wanted to, we could not legally end our participation in school choice this year – it would take 12 years for the last alien first grader to graduate high school. For all the complaining, you would think Berkshire Hills was not actually winning at this game of beggar my neighbor – sending away a hundred students but bringing in nearly 300 results in a positive balance of $800,000 a year. Any new building should allow the district to continue to thrive in this competitive environment, which shows no sign of changing. It makes no sense to flatten one wing of classrooms on the strength of population projections that show declining enrollment. Even the author of these projections warns against treating them as gospel – any kind of unforeseen economic circumstance could force him to revise them.
When the first white settlers came here and hacked farm fields out of the forest primeval, the first thing they did as a community was to build a church where they all could come together on the Lord’s Day. During the week while all the grown ups were struggling for their meager existence, the church doubled as a school where the young were taught to read, write and cipher, so that they could become useful citizens like their parents. Later, men who had prospered through commerce and industry gave money to build libraries for the general edification. If we remember the names of Mason and Ramsdell today, it is not for all the money they made, but for the good deeds they did with it. In the late 19th century, the merchants on Main Street took up a collection so the smartest kid at the high school could go to Harvard. That kid’s name was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois; it still brings honor to the town where he grew up.
If Great Barrington is to have a future as good as its past, it must embrace the new industries that are springing up, and the new people who are coming to town to participate in them. These new people are attracted by a town where the institutions of American civic life still function, where they can get their children a first-rate public education for their property tax dollars. The tax rate is high, but that is not because of the fancy new people who want to fix the high school. The tax rate is high because of the decisions of people in town government for 25 years, including former selectmen Andy Moro and Buddy Atwood, who are now implausibly posing as fiscal watchdogs. The way to make the tax rate come down is not to impose more austerity on our high school students, as these — and other — so-called fiscal conservatives suggest, but to build a new school that will attract new people to continue the work those of us here have already begun. Vote yes for the new high school on Tuesday.