A fourth town joining Berkshire Hills could save millions on a new high school
Great Barrington — If a new proposal is put before voters in the next year or two for reconstruction of Monument Mountain Regional High School, a number of factors could come together to soften the blow on taxpayers, especially those in Great Barrington who put the kibosh on a pair of proposals in 2013 and 2014.
First, if the Berkshire Hills Regional School District could increase the number of towns that are formally members of the district, it could be leveraged to have a significant effect on the reimbursement rate from the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon, who is also the part-time superintendent for the Shaker Mountain School Union, told members of Monument Next Steps, the committee charged with exploring options to fix the high school, “I think there a possibility they might be interested in doing something with us at the high-school level … maybe more than a possibility.”
Richmond, which is a member of Shaker Mountain, would probably want to maintain autonomy over its K-8 Richmond Consolidated School, but might be interested in formally joining Berkshire Hills to become a sending town for Monument. Dillon said other districts such as Lenox, Lee and Southern Berkshire have suggested they want to “do their own thing” for now.
Richmond currently pays a per-pupil tuition to send some of its students to Monument for high school, but formally joining the district would presumably give it the representation it currently lacks on the Berkshire Hills school committee.
See video below of the Monument Next Steps meeting on Feb. 19, 2019, at Monument Mountain Regional High School:
“If that happened, it would also make you eligible for a significant reimbursement for the capital project as part of an expanded district, so all my time supervising kindergarten and first-grade teachers over there may end up having a $4- to 5-million payoff, if we can pull that off,” Dillon said.
The MSBA offers several incentives to bump up its reimbursement rate for approved projects, but the largest (up to 6 additional percentage points) lies in the formation of a new school district as part of the building project. The topic might resonate with South County residents because, with declining enrollments, there have been committees formed to consider consolidations and mergers.
This will be the third try since 2013 to get state aid for the ailing high school. Within the span of one year, a pair of $50 million-plus proposals failed when Great Barrington, by far the largest of the three towns in the district, failed to approve an override to Proposition 2½, a state statute that limits tax levy increases. In both cases, the state would have paid for almost 41 percent of the cost, not counting incentives.
Another way in which the impact on taxpayers could be softened is in the timing. In 2005, Berkshire Hills constructed new regional elementary and middle schools near Monument Mountain Regional High School on Route 7. But in order to build Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School and Monument Valley Regional Middle School, the district had to issue bonds to complete the $29 million project.
Those bonds are scheduled to be paid off in 2023. So if the debt for the two schools is retired at about the same time that the new debt is assumed for the Monument project, it would blunt the effect of the tax increases necessary to finance it.
“If we could line those up almost perfectly, that would be a great thing,” Dillon said.
Dillon also pointed to an amendment to the regional agreement governing the school district. That amendment, which was approved in town meetings in 2017, changed the way the three member towns will pay for capital projects such as the one being contemplated now.
Until recently, the three member towns of Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge were billed by the district for the capital and operational sides of the budget largely according to how many students each town sends to district schools.
This formula upset many Great Barrington taxpayers because the town bore the brunt of tax increases because of its larger population. It is widely viewed as a major reason why the two Monument projects were defeated in the town, even as they passed overwhelmingly in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.
But Dillon and others at the Next Steps meeting said additional meetings should be held with members of the select and finance boards in Great Barrington to get a sense of what Great Barrington’s situation is with other townwide capital projects. For example, the town is facing an estimated $11 million in bridge repairs and replacements over the next few years.
Next Steps member and Great Barrington Selectman Dan Bailly noted that when the previous Monument projects were put on the ballot, they listed the total cost of the projects, not counting the MSBA’s share.
The first proposal, for example, totaled some $56 million. As required by law, that amount was published on the ballot when, in reality, the cost to taxpayers would have been a little more than half that when the MSBA’s reimbursement was counted.
“It’s that final number everybody fears,” Bailly said. “It’s such a huge number. People are not looking at the real cost.”
Next Steps chairman and school committee member Bill Fields of Great Barrington said this phenomenon would have to be a part of any future marketing effort.
“It’s up the public to understand that that’s not really the figure and, of course, all of us in the public eye and officials know that, but how do you translate that to the general public?” Fields asked. “So we have to educate the public that it’s really not what you’re voting on.”
Bailly asked Berkshire Hills director of operations Steve Soule if it would be possible to calculate the cost to build Monument, which opened in 1968, and translate it to today’s dollars. Soule said it cost approximately $3 million to build the original in 1967.
If you use any handy online inflation calculator tied to the consumer price index (The Edge found this one), that amount in today’s dollars is equivalent to more than $22.6 million.
And Soule told The Edge after the meeting that, in 1967, the MSBA had not yet been formed and there were no major sources of state funding for school building projects, so the $3 million spent on the new Monument was all local dollars paid for by taxpayers in the three member towns.
Dillon laid out the process for the remainder of the Next Steps meeting in advance of a presentation to the full school committee Thursday, May 2. Click here to see the schedule.
Monument graduate and Stockbridge native Joshua Shapiro, who teaches at his undergraduate alma mater, New York University, has offered to synthesize Next Steps’ findings and put them into a multimedia presentation to the school committee.
At the same time, Berkshire Hills will file another statement of interest (SOI) to the MSBA. In December, the MSBA informed Berkshire Hills it would not be considered for funding in the current cycle. Click here to read the letter, which invited the district to resubmit a statement of interest later this year. SOIs in the next cycle are due Friday, April 12.
Dillon said he imagines the MSBA will respond by December. He expects the reaction from the authority to be much more positive since the growth of the school’s career and vocational technical education program, which recently received three important grants.
Lastly, Next Steps expects to offer more than one option, in varying degrees of costs and complexity, to the school committee, while recommending only one. Monument principal Doug Wine noted that providing an estimated cost to the school committee would be difficult at this stage.
Dillon said Sharon Harrison, the district’s business administrator, would be present at the Tuesday, March 5, meeting. He is also trying to get school building consultant Jon Winikur, who assisted the district in the first two projects, to attend. Between the two of them, they should be able to come up with some rough numbers.