Great Barrington — As a condition for its support of future Berkshire Hills Regional School District budgets, and as the price for its endorsement of the proposed $51 million renovation of Monument Mountain Regional High School, the Selectboard will seek a more equitable regional school agreement.
At a special meeting of the Selectboard Monday, June 2, Selectboard Chair Deborah Phillips announced that within the next two weeks she would meet her counterparts in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge to propose the formation of a working group to determine how to revise the agreement that Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin characterized as “out of date.”
No formal vote was taken endorsing Phillips’ initiative.
At issue is how operating and capital costs are shared between the towns. The three-town allocations became a matter of critical concern as voters within the district – especially those in Great Barrington who pay the majority of the costs — confronted how much each town would be assessed if the proposed renovation project were approved.
Last November, a proposed $56 million renovation was approved by a majority district-wide, but rejected in Great Barrington where voters overwhelming rebuffed the project and its tax burden to the town. As a result, the measure was defeated, but the School Committee has soldiered on, determined to try again during the general election on November 4 with reduced costs ($51 million versus $56 million).
“I have been researching the process of amending regional school agreements,” Tabakin reported to the board. “Many towns have examined their school pacts over time, and have used consultants to facilitate the process. I recommend that approach, because they would work on behalf of all the towns and the School Committee.”
Tabakin pointed out that “there are variety of ways regional district towns can divide costs, for both operating and capital expenditures.”
Phillips, however, is intent on fast-tracking negotiations between the towns, and to see whether a special agreement could be reached for Stockbridge and West Stockbridge to pay more for the high school renovation.
“We may want to preserve the larger process. The sooner we resolve the issue of minimum contributions by each of the towns, the sooner this issue will go away. In the next two weeks, I’m going to have a conversation with my counterparts, and hopefully get agreement to hire a consultant to guide a working group on amending the school agreement. I hope we can make a fair agreement. But we also need to see whether there are smaller changes to the arrangement just about the cost of this project that we could achieve,” she said. “I believe it’s a good project, and anything I can do to improve the money situation I will do.”
In particular, Phillips cited voter approval in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge of the initial, higher priced version of the school renovation.
Would voters in those towns be willing to maintain the share they originally endorsed, she wondered?
“If Stockbridge and West Stockbridge agreed to the price of the original project, and would do so again, that would reduce Great Barrington’s allocation, so that costs would be more equitably shared,” she said.
Any amendments to the regional school agreement would require approval by the three towns.
And that’s where Selectboard member Dan Bailly, who had sat throughout the discussion with his head down in obvious opposition to Phillips’ initiative, expressed his doubt any progress could be made.
“We’re going to get screwed by the other towns,” he burst out. “It happens every time. I have no faith whatsoever – no faith whatsoever – in those towns or in the School Committee.”
“You’ve been so negative,” retorted fellow Selectboard member Stephen Bannon, who is also chair of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District. “It’s been disappointing.”