There are viable alternatives for high school renovation

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By Thursday, Oct 2 Learning, Letters  6 Comments

To the Editor:

I would like to thank Richard Coons, chairman of the Monument Mountain Building Committee, for his Letter to the Editor concerning my “Draft Alternative Plan” that has been circulating around town.

The impetus for writing this document was two-fold. First, was to respond to Selectboard member Ed Abrams who repeatedly chided residents to come up with an alternative and once given, quickly dismissed it because we residents are not “experts.” There was no discussing the merits or even an acknowledgment that there is reason for residents to be concerned about the proposed plan. The idea that residents should not criticize because the “experts know best” is patronizing and counterproductive. This is no way to treat one’s constituency — and certainly not a way to build democracy within the community process. It is not the job of the citizenry to design or administrate public works projects. It is their responsibility to investigate the quality and veracity of each proposition and respond in ways that move the community towards a better outcome.

Secondly (and most importantly), throughout the public presentations of 2012-13, residents repeatedly and consistently raised the same set of concerns and desires with no tangible impact on the design or project assumptions. Chief among them were use of local contractors, demonstrable improvement in educational opportunities, reduced operating costs, and an overall reduction in project cost. As I state in the first few sentences of the document, I simply synthesized the ideas put forward by residents in the course of those presentations to stimulate discussion and illustrate an alternative way to look at the schools problems. Based on the feedback I am receiving, I clearly met that objective.

The idea to break the larger project down into smaller projects actually came from a rather lively discussion in the fall of 2012 with the Building Committee. While you dismissed the idea out of hand, the SMMA architect was willing to engage the subject and discuss opportunities and limitations of this approach. Scaling the project is critical to enable local contractors to qualify for certification. There are very few who could even bid on a $50 million project given the rules, but many established contractors could and would be willing bid on a $500,000 or less project. There is nothing underhanded or evasive about structuring the project to the community’s benefit. No one is talking about shirking the responsibility to provide a safe, code compliant school for out kids. Residents clearly feel that there must be a better way of going about it.

I have talked to the MSBA, DCAMM, and the state’s attorney general’s office about using separate permits to scale the project — none of them raised serious objection. In fact, one DCAMM compliance officer wondered why smaller communities did not structure projects in the way I am describing more often. There are considerations: bids cannot be split to favor an individual contractor, each project would need its own footprint, timeline, and justification. But in principle, I cannot find any regulation blocking the approach that I describe. I am not and do not claim to be an “expert” on public school renovations, but the fact that I can get this far — on my own — belies the truth behind the absence of alternatives from the building committee given the resources it has at its disposal.

As to the STEM/Industrial Arts building idea, this actually came from a much beloved, now retired, Monument teacher and administrator who came to a meeting armed with an article from the New York Times. I would expect no less forward thinking from him. The genius of this idea is that it creates completely new educational opportunities, consolidates major construction in the northeast corner of the building to reduce cost, reinvigorates a deteriorating industrial arts program, and otherwise addresses the most dilapidated area of the existing building.

The idea that it is not possible to make such a suggestion simply because I don’t understand infrastructure issues is disingenuous at best. In terms of electric, the A wing has plenty of electrical capacity to support redevelopment in this way. The school’s electrical service in general is already wildly over-sized (from what I have been told the school uses 400 amps of a 1,200 amp service). There is already water in place. The building I have described is no more challenging than the proposed new classroom building sited right next to the location I am proposing. The “technology upgrades” in the alternative are no more work than the proposed and would provide much better services and educational opportunity than the proposed.

As to practicality, it is ironic to me that you say “this approach has been tested and is more expensive” when in fact the proposed plan uses a similar multi-year approach to construction to avoid unnecessary disruption of school activities. The biggest difference here is that you do it all under one permit.

As to “more expensive,” it is very hard for me to see how doing roughly 40 percent less demolition, reconstruction, and not expanding the building footprint besides the STEM addition is somehow more expensive. This goes to one of the nagging complaints residents have had about the “repair-only” option as well. The documentation that would help residents understand your claims are mysteriously absent from the posted documentation. There are high-level documents available, but I can find nothing that is on par with the proposed project and hence lack the kind of specificity required to justify your statements. Ultimately, the cost of any proposed action is based on the assumptions that go into it. It is not good enough for you to say: “trust us.”

The fact is, moving spaces like the cafeteria, library, and offices around within the building is expensive and wasteful. The bulk of the budget bloat seems directly attributable to this reshuffling and the result provides very modest benefits.

I understand that an incredible amount of effort has gone into your proposal. It is truly regrettable that so much time, money, and effort has yielded this result. But that is no justification for passing a plan that is this wasteful or lacks advancement of the mission of the school. I will note that Mr. Dillon and Ms. Young have sincerely tried to open the process and air ideas, but unfortunately, their participation has not seemed to effect any meaningful change in the process. Without a truly honest examination of the project assumptions, there can be no reasonable way for residents to participate.

On November 4, we are not voting on “my plan” or the “repair-only” option — we are voting on one proposal — yes or no. I wrote the “Draft Alternative Plan” to help people make a decision about the merits and value of that plan by providing a contrasting perspective. At the end of the day, the voters will decide. And if they decide “No” then the building committee will surely have to reexamine the demands of residents if they expect to pass an alternative. My hope is that we could do a better of job of working together the next time.

David Long

Great Barrington


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6 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Ellen says:

    The alternative plan is too costly, doesn’t fix address key issues at the school, doesn’t reflect state construction laws, and throws extraordinary confusing into an already complex process that has in fact by extremely transparent in the last six years. I hope people will focus on the Nov. 4 plan, and decide on the basis of THAT PLAN, with THAT REIMBURSEMENT, and THEIR OWN PERSONAL TAX ASSESSMENT, whether saying no is worth the risk of losing a massive infusion of $23M in state funds. There is no perfect process, and no perfect plan, the district has created the strongest project with the strongest possible reimbursement. I vote for predictability and certainty for our taxpayers, educators and students. I vote to reject circular confusing arguments and help taxpayers decide on the actual plan before us.

    Visit monumentmatters.org for factual info. visit monumentmatters.org/tax-impact. Divide your result by $12, think about it, see if it is something you may be willing and able to adjust to.

  2. Patrick Fennell says:

    Your plan is worth serious consideration. Like the idea of keeping it small.

  3. Karen Smith says:

    Cite your sources as previously asked…

  4. Ed Abrahams says:

    David, I didn’t quickly dismiss your plan because you are not an expert. I dismissed it for all the reasons Dick Coons, who is an expert, stated better than I could have. I have never said that a dedicated group of voters can’t come up with a better plan than the the one selected by professional educators, architects, engineers, financial and funding professionals overseen by a group of volunteer taxpayers. I never said you couldn’t do it better in two months than that group, who worked for 8 years beginning by carefully establishing educational goals with the input of parents, teachers and administrators. I’ve just said that if you can I’d like to see it. I still haven’t.

    As voters we can only vote for what is possible.

    1. Dave Long says:

      I think you are proving my point about closed mindedness… Mr Coons did not address any of the citizen concerns contained within the document, he simply heaped on negative generalities and condecending proclaimations…

    2. Patrick Fennell says:

      And what they can afford. Which is not a 51.5 million dollar renovation project unless they live in Richmond, Alford, Monterey, Otis, and other towns other than West Stockbridge and the town you were elected to look out for Great Barrington. Most people I have talked to are already upset with the new property taxes that just came in the mail, come to think of All the people I talked to are upset about the higher taxes in GB. So much for your conservative platform you ran on in May.

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