Barrington Finance Committee supports petition to revise school district structure  

“We were told legally that [the Finance Committee] is an advisory board, and it just seems to me that your advisory capacity is going well beyond the advisory nature and actually trying to set policy.” -- Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee member Bill Fields

Great Barrington — Two weeks following the defeat of the Monument Mountain Regional High School renovation plan at the hands of Great Barrington voters, two project opponents have approached the town Finance Committee with a petition and list of demands, intended, they claimed, to help form new plans to fix the deteriorating school and address the related financial issues that sank the vote.

Great Barrington residents Ron Banks and Karen Christensen presented their list of demands at Tuesday’s (November 18) lively — at moments testy — Finance Committee meeting. In the months leading up to the November 4 vote, Banks and Christensen questioned the renovation plan, the financial arrangements between the towns, school choice and other issues on the HillGB Google Group and elsewhere. At Tuesday’s meeting they unveiled a petition to urge the district and the town to take certain steps before proceeding with a new renovation proposal: making urgent repairs to the building but also rectifying long-standing financial inequities before a new renovation proposal is set in motion.

By the end of the long session, the Finance Committee had endorsed the demands cited in the petition by a 3 to 2 vote – with committee members Michael Wise and Leigh Davis who had not seen the petition’s demands before the meeting, voting to table the matter for more discussion.

Like a manifesto, the petition contains a laundry list of reasons the project was voted down in Great Barrington — reasons even supporters of the renovation have cited as requiring attention by the town and school district, regardless of which way the vote went. The petition tackles five points that emphasize equity in costs to the towns: efficient use and sharing of resources between districts; a look at high school consolidation; school choice and tuition policy changes; the creation of a three town district-wide finance committee; and more accessible district financial information and communication.

The petition suggests use of the district’s 2009 consolidation study as a guide to consider merging districts in some way and sets a “one-year target for reaching an ‘Agreement in Principle’ with other districts and announce a 5-plus-year plan to phase in the changes.”

The petition also suggests applying to the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s (MSBA) Accelerated Repair program “for urgent repairs including a new roof and new boilers and soliciting actual bids from local and regional contractors.”

Karen Christensen before the Finance Committee.
Karen Christensen before the Finance Committee.

Christensen, who runs Berkshire Publishing Group and is a former school committee member, presented the petition to the committee, saying her children attended Great Barrington public schools, and she is a “passionate advocate of public education.” She was “distressed,” she said, over the divisiveness and controversy surrounding the vote. The petition, she said, grew out of a “collaboration” among friends and neighbors asking “what would it take to make a sustainable plan and something that would be acted on immediately?”

“Our goal is to really bring the community together,” she claimed.

She said she and Banks were taking signatures at the website www.gb21.info.

“A lot of people wanted to vote yes but had problems,” said Banks, who runs Dr.Carfinder.com. He said he and Christensen spoke to many people who wondered how “we can find a project we can vote on next time.”

Banks went on to cite the various taxpayer irritants from property tax bill increases to school choice issues. Banks said many of these decisions had been “made in good faith and with good intention” years ago. But now, he said, “you can’t tell me it doesn’t cost anything to educate these out of town, out of district kids.” The petition, he said, also calls for more “transparency” about education costs, and suggests that a district-wide finance committee be formed to do analysis.

Referring to the perceived inequity of the district agreement between Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, Banks said people asked: “How come we pay 70 percent of the bills but only have 50 percent of the votes?”

Banks said urgent repairs to Monument need to be “done right away” on a “cost-effective basis,” and bids should be solicited from local contractors. Banks noted that Southern Berkshire Regional School District is getting a “40 or 60 percent” reimbursement “for $6 million dollars worth of boilers and roofs.”

Christensen and Banks asked for the Finance Committee’s vote to endorse the petition and to send it on to the Selectboard and the School Committee.

Finance Committee member Michael Wise, left, expresses concerns about the petition, as Leigh Davis and Chair Sharon Gregory listen.
Finance Committee member Michael Wise, left, expresses concerns about the petition, as Leigh Davis and Chair Sharon Gregory listen.

Committee members Leigh Davis and Michael Wise were the only two members on the committee who appeared surprised and somewhat frustrated. They had not been given the list of demands – a two-sided document — until the meeting began, and had to quickly read in time for the discussion before the vote.

“I’d like some more time — I’m not ready to vote on this,” Davis said. “This is the first time I’ve seen this information, and I’d like to get some advice on it.” She said she would like to see the School Committee look at it first.

Michael Wise said he was in support of the petition in principle, and said it did identify the issues that have been debated, “…but to the extent it prejudges the outcome on a lot of it, I am less enthusiastic. Details will matter a lot and some of the proposed details may not be the right ones. We are asked to create a new finance committee, as if we have already judged that the school finance sub-committee is inadequate to the job…” He was concerned, he said, about the petition’s language referring to “true costs” in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District’s budget. “There’s a lot of innuendo there,” he said, adding that calling some costs “true and some false sets up a controversy we don’t have to have.”

“I’m not ready to sign off on the details…” he added, but later said that he could if certain language in the petition was changed.

Committee Chair Sharon Gregory said a district-wide finance committee could “provide advice…it doesn’t have to be binding, but that it puts aside a function that doesn’t really exist now until the tail end of the budget.” By “true costs” Gregory said she didn’t think there was any implied deceit in the petition, but only that a “common reference point” in the way education costs are discussed, was lacking.

“Most of us can agree no matter which side we’re on that these are things we’d like to see happen,” said Committee member Walter “Buddy” Atwood III. “I don’t think this is cast in stone. This is just a starting point. ”

Committee members Thomas Blauvelt, left, and Walter F. Atwood III.
Committee members Thomas Blauvelt, left, and Walter F. Atwood III.

Committee member Thomas Blauvelt said he could “get behind” the five points in the petition, but said the “the wording on some of these might not be the best choice.” He said it was prudent to start taking action soon so that the school does not “deteriorate” further.

Wise said he could vote yes on the petition if the points that involved significant details such as repair bids — those requiring more analysis — were removed.

The idea, Christensen clarified, is to help the school committee and those who advocated the renovation “have a better understanding of the people who voted against it…the fact that things were set up so that local contractors have no possibility of being involved in a building project of this magnitude is a significant issue for people here — it’s a significant political issue.”

Davis then looked to the rear of the room, where several school committee members — including Chairman Stephen Bannon — sat quietly. She asked Bannon to weigh in about local contractors. Bannon first said they had not been invited to the meeting and told their participation was “not needed.” The School Committee, he said, was not prepared to discuss the issues; they had not been given the petition ahead of time, but Bannon did say the “law clearly states that you can’t limit [the bids] to local contractors…there are some good things in [the petition] and there are some things that aren’t right.”

Davis’ motion to table the vote on the petition did not pass, by a 3-2 margin, with only Wise and Davis dissenting.

“I’ve only just seen this [petition],” Davis noted.

Selectman Ed Abrahams jumped in and asked the committee if they really understood what the state requirements were regarding hiring local contractors to work on the high school. Abrahams referred to the extensive state certification required for any public building project over $100,000. Abrahams urged the Finance Committee to get all the details of the petition checked out before they endorsed it and sent it to the Selectboard.

Finance Committee member Leigh Davis, left, reading petition document  for the first time, while Committee Chair Gregory waits.
Finance Committee member Leigh Davis, left, reading petition document for the first time, while Committee Chair Gregory waits.

Davis wanted to know why the petition hadn’t been shown to the School Committee, and wanted to know “…why do we feel we need to rush this vote if there is dissension?”

“I feel like [the petition] is making assumptions that the School Committee didn’t do these things…I just worry about that,” she added.

Christensen responded that “…most of what is needed already exists, but it needs to be put together with perhaps a bit of fresh thinking. It’s not saying the school committee has not — in fact, the great news is that lots of the work has been done…”

Gregory likened the citizen petition to the wastewater task force headed by Housatonic resident Michelle Loubert, when the sewer rates had risen because of inequity in that rate formula, and said she liked advocacy, since all the boards were “overwhelmed with a job that is basically voluntary.”

Banks then raised the problem of the state mandated $5,000 school choice cap for receiving districts. The cost of educating a student at Berkshire Hills was $16,103 (in 2013).

Davis said it was a state issue and not under district control. Great Barrington resident Steve Donaldson said mobilization is required to get the attention of the Legislature, noting the 13 or so other districts that have a large choice-in populations. “We can’t just sit back and say its state policy and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Donaldson said.

Banks and Christensen aren’t the only citizen activists who have taken action. Renovation Steering Committee Chair Karen Smith said she and Michael Wise have already met and identified 13 districts in the state that also have the school choice influx problem. “Hub Districts,” Smith has named them. Smith and Wise have collected contact information of Hub District superintendents and school committee chairs, with whom they will try to form a coalition to lobby the state for some kind of recompense. Smith said the most effective way may be to ask for more from the state for capital projects; these Hub Districts, she said, should get an increase in reimbursement percentage from the MSBA for the choice imbalance.

“What needs to happen is that we as an electorate…need to stand up and start screaming and doing something about it,” Smith said.

Of the petition, Smith said, “some of it I agree with, some of it I don’t because some of the facts are a little incorrect, but the theory is good, I think its about time…those that have sat on the sidelines, time to get involved…”

Smith said she agreed with the charges of unfairness in the choice and district agreement situations, and said “the choice problem is our problem and we…need to do something.”

Gregory said some eventual form of school consolidation would “bypass this $5,000 school choice cap.”

The Great Barrington Finance Committee voted 3-2 to support the petition to reorganize the regional school district.
The Great Barrington Finance Committee voted 3-2 to support the petition to reorganize the regional school district.

The committee approved the motion to support the petition, 3 to 2, with Wise and Davis dissenting.

School Committee member William Fields suggested the Finance Committee was overstepping its jurisdiction. “We were told legally that this is an advisory board, and it just seems to me that your advisory capacity is going well beyond the advisory nature and actually trying to set policy.”

Blauvelt said the committee was the “fiscal watchdog” for the town. Gregory and Wise said the more information the better when it comes time for the committee to present the budget.

Banks said later by phone that the district “has created a lovely magnet school, but they haven’t gotten the funding straight.” About the petition he added, “We really want this to be a positive, cooperative, democratic process.”

“We want as many people to help as possible,” Bannon said later, referring to the petition. “There has to be some understanding that there are legal and financial obstacles to overcome, and what we want to do and what we can do are two different things.”

Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon read the petition the next day. “While I have concerns about the process and the context in the way the petition was brought up,” Dillon said, “many of these issues are things the School Committee has been working on for years.” He noted some of the district’s actions of late: the creation of a school finance subcommittee, the Shared Services Project, and yesterday’s meeting with a consultant and the three district select boards to explore possible changes to the district agreement.

We will, perhaps, know somewhat more about what is possible at today’s (November 20) school committee meeting. Dillon said he would present “additional feedback from the MSBA on potential next steps.”