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Barrington Selectboard endorses Monument High School renovation

We’ve been around and around the block about this. Is it expensive? Is it going to cost us a lot of money? Yeah, but ultimately I think it’s the right decision to make.” -- Selectboard member Sean Stanton

Great Barrington — Amid a few bouts of heckling from several members of the audience at a sparsely attended meeting Tuesday night (October 14) the Selectboard endorsed the Monument Mountain Regional High School renovation plan by a 4 to 1 margin, with only Dan Bailly voting against the motion.

The Selectboard also voted unanimously to approve placement of both the renovation and Proposition 2 ½ override questions on the ballot for the November 4 re-vote.

Last year, Great Barrington voters shot down the Berkshire Hills Regional School District (BHRSD) original $56 million plan to fix the deteriorating 49-year-old school and its systems, and bring it up to safety codes and state educational standards. The district came back with a slimmed $51 million project for which the state will kick in nearly half. Great Barrington will foot $19.4 million of that bill, with Stockbridge and West Stockbridge making up the difference for a total of $28 million.

Proposition 2 ½ was enacted by a citizen initiative in 1980, the result of a tax revolt. According to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, the measure caps the amount of revenue a town can levy from property taxes to 2.5 percent of the total value of all property in town. It also restricts the annual increase in the levy limit to 2.5 percent, with an allowance for what is called “new growth,” the increase in the value of real estate where, for example, a new house is built. A majority of voters must approve what is called a “Proposition 2 ½ override” in order to exclude debt for major projects — like the renovation — from the restrictions on the town’s levy limit, which pays for Town services.

The November 4 ballot language  states that approval of the renovation project is contingent on approval of the debt exemption (Prop 2 ½ override). The question whether to exclude the debt doesn’t change the fact that the cost of the school will increase taxes for homeowners. Excluding the debt will provide options for the town to balance the budget in ways that will avoid cuts to town services.

Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, at left, with Selectboard Chair Deborah Phillips.
Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, at left, with Selectboard Chair Deborah Phillips.

Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin explained that while the town’s actual tax levy is now under the maximum allowable levy, the override is necessary to protect the town’s budget from unforeseen future operating expenses. The renovation project will be bonded out for 25 years, projected as an annual debt of $1,149,220 at a 3.75 percent interest rate on the $28 million principal for the three towns in the district. The override for big projects, Tabakin said, “is common in most municipalities,” and is Great Barrington’s policy.

“I congratulate the town on their fiscal management,” said renovation steering committee chair Karen Smith. She said it was prudent to keep a buffer near the top of the debt ceiling. Smith also said she was grateful for Tabakin’s “shining a light” on Proposition 2 ½ and making it less confusing. “It’s important that people know that [the renovation] does not cap out our levy in the next fiscal year. We just need to know the truth.”

But it was the high school renovation project itself that was central to last night’s meeting. Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon was on hand to encourage the Selectboard to join the West Stockbridge and Stockbridge boards in endorsing the project.

BHRSD Superintendent Peter Dillon.
BHRSD Superintendent Peter Dillon.

He discussed how the district had arrived at the plan now under consideration by voters; the high school’s deteriorating systems and roof, security and safety issues, equipment deficiencies and what district and the state think are necessary educational upgrades. It was those upgrades that prompted the Massachusetts School Building Authority to give the district a nearly 50 percent reimbursement. Dillon said the hefty state reimbursement shouldn’t be ignored “in the context of the vote.” Stepping out of the MSBA’s program, Dillon said, would not give the MSBA much confidence in this community’s support for a new round of planning and funding from the Authority, likely a six to eight years process.

“If I were at the MSBA,” he said, “I wouldn’t be eager…to put us back on the list [for funding]…their charge to us is that we agree to support [the project] locally.”

Housatonic resident Michelle Loubert grilled Dillon about whether the district had pursued any grants to offset the cost of the project, particularly the School Security and Safety Grant Program 112, which allows up to $20,000 in support. Dillon said the district was indeed asking for a $20,000 grant, but rather from the Yale Child Study Center and other community organizations, a grant that will address student safety from an emotional-social angle.

Selectboard member Sean Stanton jumped in to support the district’s plan. He said he had been following the debate, and sees that despite frequent soundings of the population decrease alarm, “it seems like there is a real increase in the numbers of children being born and young families moving here, specifically to Housatonic and Great Barrington… moving to a small town with a good school system…I think the best way to work towards making sure [a population decrease] doesn’t happen is certainly to invest in our schools. We’ve been around and around the block about this. Is it expensive? Is it going to cost us a lot of money? Yeah, but ultimately I think it’s the right decision to make.”

Selectboard members Stephen Bannon, left, and Dan Bailly.
Selectboard members Stephen Bannon, left, and Dan Bailly.

Selectboard member Dan Bailly said he was “a little disappointed that the voters aren’t getting a fair representation.”

At this there was applause from the few residents who came to the meeting. Only four could be counted, apart from press and two school officials. Odd, considering how passionate both supporters and opponents of the renovation project have been.

Selectboard member Ed Abrahams has been vocal in his concern about the expense of repairs that will have to be done anyway, and has said the renovation is the better way to go, given the state’s robust reimbursement and the dangers of playing chicken with inflation if the work isn’t done soon.

Selectboard member Ed Abrahams.
Selectboard member Ed Abrahams.

“We have a building that we have to put 570 students in no matter what,” he declared.

Bailly wasn’t having any of it, and said it wasn’t the expense alone that made some residents unhappy, but rather the scale of the project itself. “Most people agree [the school] needs a new roof, it needs a new boiler but that’s not what we’re voting on,” he said, adding that we’re voting on the same “schematic” as last year. “And that hasn’t changed.”

More applause.

“I guess we just talk to different people, and that is certainly possible,” said Selectboard Chair Deb Phillips. “I did not hear [from people] that it was a bad project, I heard that it was expensive.”

In response to a grumbling in the gallery, Phillips got stern, saying this was time for the Board to discuss the project before their vote.

Bill Warford, arguing with Selectboard Chair Deborah Phillips.
Bill Warford, arguing with Selectboard Chair Deborah Phillips.

“You’re putting words in our mouth,” protested ­­­­­one Great Barrington resident.

“I’m not putting words in your mouth at all,” Phillips retorted. The gentleman then interrupted again, questioning Phillips as to which people she had talked to.

“Excuse me, I’m not arguing with you,” she said. “I’m going to finish my statement.”

Phillips then proceeded to say that she had “changed her mind” about the project after talking to residents who said it seemed that there was no way to avoid the high cost of fixing the school, and that voting “no” would not save taxpayers money. Phillips said that by endorsing the project, she is responding to those residents. “This is not just my opinion,” she said, “but it really just does come from talking to people in the community also. I’ve asked a lot of questions between the last vote and this one.”

Stanton asked what alternative to the district’s plan had been presented that “was better.”

“You’re voting on a $51.2 million project, that if it fails, maybe the school board can go back, and maybe the MSBA says, yes, maybe we’ll give it to you again, but you need to refine this, the project itself,” said Bailly. “I think you could probably reduce this to a $40 million project and probably make out better.”

Selectboard member Stephen Bannon, also chair of the district’s school committee, appeared to grow weary just at the thought, and noted that the MSBA’s process is long and challenging.

“We’re definitely not going back to the MSBA and saying we want to try a $40 million project…for a third time.” Bannon said that in the competitive landscape of MSBA funding, the “political muscle” of state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) had to be flexed just to get the MSBA to come tour the building. The district had at that point, Bannon said, gone five years “without an answer” from the Authority. Bannon said he didn’t think it was possible to get anything more out of the MSBA.

At this point, it was clear that minds had been made up, said Phillips, and it was on to Citizen’s Speak time before the Board’s vote.

Enter Patrick Fennell, Great Barrington resident. “Why doesn’t the Board of Selectmen do the Pledge of Allegiance before meetings?”

“That’s a good question, I don’t know,” said Phillips.

“I think it’s rather un-American not to,” said Fennell, quickly fleeing the podium to make way for Great Barrington resident Bill Warford.

Phillips reprimanding Fennell and Warford for being disruptive.
Phillips reprimanding Fennell and Warford for being disruptive.

Great Barrington resident Bill Warford said he wasn’t against the project’s expense or a good educational system. Warford’s beef is that he doesn’t think there has been any independent cost analysis. “All the analysis that have been done have been done by the people who are on the side of Peter Dillon and going forth with this project.” He said he didn’t trust a district that wanted to buy “granite curbing and bleachers,” items that were removed from the district’s original renovation plan.

Dillon said he had been besieged by “the most nuanced detailed questions” at hundreds of meetings. “As good as my memory is I don’t have every answer at the tip of my tongue,” he said, adding that the district has “bent over backwards” to present as much documentation to the public as possible, especially on the district’s website. “Almost anything anybody’s asked you can find.” Dillon added that he is very responsive to the press and anyone with questions.

“That doesn’t answer my charge, Peter,” said Warford, again pointing to what he sees as a conflict of interest in all cost analysis associated with the project.

“It’s not true,” said Karen Smith, quietly. “It’s not true.”

Warford then accused Dillon of dishonesty. Phillips stopped him in his tracks, and Bannon, among others, bristled.

“We’re not going to have a pissing match here at the end,” said Phillips.

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