Stockbridge – In an unexpected spirit of pragmatic generosity residents at a 4-hour, jam-packed Annual Town Meeting here Monday night (May 15) overwhelmingly approved – by a 155-91 margin – an amendment to the Berkshire Hills Regional School District agreement that would increase their tax rate should the district undertake capital projects, such as renovating and upgrading the aging Monument Mountain Regional High School.
And they did so with the full awareness that they were taking on a greater tax burden in order to more equally share the costs of improving school facilities, in spite of the fact that the town Finance Committee had voted 6-0 against the amended agreement.
“We need to do it,” declared former selectman Chuck Gillette. “There are garbage cans in the high school hallways to collect the water leaking from the roof. We’re going to pay a little bit more to get a whole lot more. It’s our responsibility. Every generation puts a school in place for the next generation.”
At their town meetings earlier this month the other district member towns, Great Barrington and West Stockbridge, had also adopted the amendment that replaces the current enrollment formula with the town’s property values as the basis for determining each town’s contribution to the regional school district budget. Under this method, according to current assessed townwide property evaluation, Stockbridge would be responsible for 32 percent of any capital expenditures – up from 15 percent under the per student formula, while Great Barrington’s percent would drop from 70 percent to 53 percent. West Stockbridge would be responsible for 15 percent.
The revised agreement was the product of a year’s deliberations – sometimes acrimonious — by the Regional Agreement Amendment Committee (RAAC) made up of town and school committee representatives, and was acknowledged as an attempt to convince Great Barrington, whose voters had twice rejected a $24 million proposal to rebuild and upgrade the high school in large part because of the inequities between how the costs would be distributed among the three towns.
In defense of the amendment RAAC member Fred Rutberg argued that “apportioning costs by the number of students won’t hold water in the future. We don’t know what enrollment will be moving forward, but we do know that this revised assessment would only occur if there is a new capital project, and whatever project comes forward will be voted on.”
He also pointed out that the high school needs to be renovated.
“Doing it piecemeal,” he said, “we won’t have the state providing a reimbursement. We’ll pay more and get less.”
Rich Bradway, a former member former member of the BHRSD School Committee, noted that the increases in the school district assessment to Stockbridge had been kept to 1.5 percent. “The School Committee has kept expenses down,” he said, “with much smaller increases than other expenses. Funding our schools is an investment in our community.”
Still, there was resentment against Great Barrington for having rejected the school renovation proposal two years ago, for which the district would have received nearly 50 percent reimbursement from the state, when Stockbridge and West Stockbridge had endorsed it.
“We shouldn’t reward Great Barrington,” shouted out one resident “They had two chances. If they were so concerned about their children, they would have voted for it, and we wouldn’t be here talking about it.”
In the end, however, it was the views expressed by resident Sarah Horne that proved persuasive enough to overcome simmering annoyance with Great Barrington.
“We should put most of our money into education,” she insisted. “There is no better way to ensure a better future for our community, state and country. This is most important. What we are saying is that we believe in education for all the children, not just in our town but in the district. Education has longevity.”