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Berkshire Hills at crossroads: What’s next for Monument Mountain?

What many residents find puzzling, but can’t put their finger on, is why the renovation debate grew so heated. Some have wondered if there is another element at play, other than tax worries.

The dust is still settling after November 4 when voters in Great Barrington torpedoed the Monument Regional High School renovation ship by a 556 vote margin — for a second year in a row.

Yet, as the sun came up the next morning, students headed back to Monument to continue their education and, a day later, the Berkshire Hills School Committee reconvened with two new members, Jason St. Peter and William Fields.

Sans flak vest, Stephen Bannon returned to his position as Committee Chair after voters returned him to his seat with gusto Tuesday; he got more votes than were cast in favor of renovating the school. This puzzled even Bannon, who later said he thought the association between the renovation and the incumbent would force him out. Bannon allowed that he was pleased by the “fairly substantial” vote.

“What is important for people to know is that there’s more to the district than this one renovation project,” Bannon said in a phone interview. “We’ve done a lot of good things and we have a lot of good things to do. What’s been lost over the last eight weeks is that we’re doing a good job and we want to do an even better job [educating children].”

Berkshire Hills School Committee Chairman Stephen Bannon.
Berkshire Hills School Committee Chairman Stephen Bannon.

Thursday night’s meeting was devoted to school and district business. Superintendent Peter Dillon is in China until next week; Bannon and Monument Principal Marianne Young are acting in his behalf. But the roof still leaks and the boilers are failing. The building is a fire hazard. So what’s next?

Disappointed supporters of the district’s failed project have called on the most vocal of project opponents for help, and some of the opponents have said — on social media and elsewhere, at least — that they are willing to forge a solution to fix the building and other financial issues.

Selectman Ed Abrahams called them out: “Enough armchair quarterbacking,” he said. “Get involved, come to the meetings, do the research to find out what the [state] will pay for or not.” He repeated his refrain over the last weeks: “There’s no magic out there.”

Indeed, magic can’t dispel the fact that the replacement of the high school’s roof, with all its attendant cost and the disruption to the functioning of the school, awaits.

Opponents pointed to the hike in taxes that would have resulted from the project, the latest in a decade-long succession of tax increases in town due to other expensive projects – the library, the fire station and two schools. Others expressed concern at enrollment projections, inequities in district funding mechanisms long unaddressed. Some contended that the plan itself was flawed in its design and creativity.

Software designer and farmer David Long of Housatonic was compelled enough by these flaws to draw up his own plan; preliminary though it was, it stirred the imaginations of voters with its lower price tag and alternative methods. “Too many fixes were put into the basket, and that made the basket too heavy,” Long said in an email, referring to the district’s plan. “I believe that simply looking at parts of the project independently makes it easier to see opportunities to do things more creatively, for less money in some cases, and possibly with additional funding mechanisms.”

Criticisms of Long’s plan mostly revolved around what school building committee chair Richard Coons said was an absence of state code compliance, an architect, and all kinds of contingencies that won’t be determined until the 48-year-old systems are removed or the building envelope is cracked open.

It is “still unclear at the moment,” Long wrote, how he will be involved. “[I’m] talking with all sides involved.” Long has a master’s degree in landscape design and planning. “I am not particularly interested in simply being a critic, as I have been of late, but there has to be a legitimate opening for me to go much farther.”

Great Barrington Finance Committee member Michael Wise.
Great Barrington Finance Committee member Michael Wise.

It’s been a complex issue from the start, said Finance Committee member Michael Wise, who came out in support of the project based on his analysis of data comparing repairs to renovation costs. But, Wise said, “we need to solve something else before we build an expensive school.” By “something else” Wise is talking about a “lot of moving parts: school choice, tuition agreements, tax structure, the district agreement — the high per capita charge for schools seems weird.”

Indeed, what really got under voters’ skins were these old arrangements for school choice and tuition reimbursements from out-of-district students, and a district agreement between the three towns that many Great Barrington residents — both supporters and opponents of the plan — find inequitable. The district agreement is the purview of the three towns, according to Selectboard Chair Deborah Phillips, who has begun to work on the issue. All three selectboards must come together and agree, she added. “Those two towns were gung ho for the renovation,” she said. “Had there been a more equitable distribution of capital costs, they might have gotten the [renovation] if we could have financed it differently.”

“But how do we do this without pulling the district apart?” Phillips said, noting that up north Lanesborough is presently pulling out of an agreement with Mount Greylock School District. “But I really think we need a bigger district to spread certain kinds of costs.”

Wise said that the “school committee has already set up a finance committee to coordinate with the finance committees of the member towns in their budget planning.”

“Dave Long summed it up pretty well,” Phillips said. “There’s some really hard work that needs to start now, because in next year’s budget there’s going to be the cost of repairing the roof.”

“This is a long journey,” Phillips said of composing a new plan for the school, which, she added, could take up to a year, and must “formulate this vision of education for the next 25 years.” Then, she said, “we need to look at funding from taxes, grants and other state money — and how do you make all that happen?”

Phillips said a new building committee composed of people who “feel strongly there is another way” is a start to fixing the physical plant. “That’s where the visions diverge,” she said. “I don’t think most people who opposed the building [project] object to the education our children are getting.”

High school renovation opponents Karen Christiansen (in green sweater) and Patrick Fennell together at November 6 School Committee meeting, while Muddy Brook Elementary School Principal Mary Berle addresses the session. Photo: Heather Bellow
High school renovation opponents Karen Christensen (in green sweater) and Patrick Fennell together at November 6 School Committee meeting, while Muddy Brook Elementary School Principal Mary Berle addresses the session. Photo: Heather Bellow

Great Barrington resident and former school committee member Karen Christensen says she would like to see “new leadership” in going forward with a plan for Monument. She said she found it “insulting” that the project’s leadership brought another plan forward without looking at other related issues like consolidation first, and that “leadership isn’t about bullying, it’s about getting people to engage in whatever idea you have.”

Christensen would “absolutely” get involved, she said, if a new building committee is formed “to approach this in a fresh way that makes it go faster and more on the ground.”

Christensen, CEO and founder of Berkshire Publishing, created and manages the Google Group HillGB, a neighborhood list serve for the Castle Hill neighborhood in Great Barrington. The Hill was divided in the month before the vote, with angry posts on the list serve from both sides of the issue. Precinct D encompasses The Hill, and saw votes of 450 against, 308 for.

Christensen further stated that the presentation method for the plan was a “breach of the covenant between the citizens and the school committee.”

“I’m a very data driven person,” Christensen said, noting that she did not think “an adequate case was made” for the plan. “I like to see claims backed up by facts and transparency by public officials. It is a real problem in a small town, because people do expect to have clarity and honesty and not simply to be told we should trust…I want to trust and verify…to have real academic rigor…”

She called upon the Selectboard, the Finance Committee and the School Committee to “take a close look into their own hearts about their choices and their decisions,” in support of the plan.

Throughout the process district officials and committee members maintained they did the best they could during a grueling six-year process of endless meetings in which ideas for economies and creativity crashed into state regulations and funding requirements.

That aside, other long-standing problems remained, problems even Superintendent Peter Dillon acknowledged. “The project surfaced a range of concerns that may have been ignored for decades,” Dillon wrote in a letter to the editor. Dillon arrived in the district six years ago.

Select board Chair Deborah Phillips.
Select board Chair Deborah Phillips.

“We shouldn’t necessarily bear the burden for those capital costs in this unequal way,” Phillips said, noting the perceived inequity in the district agreement hadn’t been dealt with before the renovation plan was put forward. “[Great Barrington] is paying 70 percent of the choice and tuition [students].” She added that she had less trouble with the town covering operating costs since it has “the bulk of kids.” She said there was no such thing as school choice when the district agreement was made.

“No one had factored in how choice-in students would affect [the town],” Phillips pointed out, which is one reason why the district agreement is unfair.

“The only way you get what’s right for your own community, you have to stand up to Boston…they will respond,” Christensen said about the school choice rate cap. “You have to shout to get what you want.”

Dillon has said there are 12 other districts in the same boat as Berkshire Hills that need to form a coalition to be heard in Boston.

The school choice law passed in 1991 capped the amount sending districts must pay receiving districts at $5,000. The rate, which has not been adjusted since, doesn’t come close to covering the tuition cost per pupil at Berkshire Hills, which, according to the state was $16,103 in 2013. It is a desirable district for many reasons, and as a result has waiting list of 40 out-of-district students. Berkshire Hills has competed well, keeping the number of choice students at a marginal cost level, and netting $850,000 in annual choice revenue after loosing roughly $600,000 to the students who leave for various reasons.

State Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield) says the lack of movement in changing the school choice rate “speaks to more the fact that the various education funding formulas have been seen as a messy political package…there are winner districts in choice and loser districts in choice.”

Michael Gilbert, field director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, spoke at a school choice forum at Monument last June. Gilbert said there hasn’t been enough “pushback” by districts to get the Legislature to tackle the problem. “Nothing has happened with education funding, at least in my lifetime, that didn’t involve a lawsuit,” Gilbert said. “It’s easier to change the school choice formula than the state aid formula.”

There may be other ways to solve some of these problems. School Committee member Fred Clark wrote a memo he handed out at a recent meeting in which he said he would like to explore Chapter 74 certification for all vocational programs, which, he said, are “expensive to run.” A Chapter 74 nonresident certification would allow the district to receive a higher rate “that more closely reflect our true costs, presently $10,866” per year. Clark wrote that he had “heard informally that five of our carpentry/property maintenance students were from Lee.” Clark said this was great collaboration between towns “that have real benefit but not so great for BHRSD as we only receive the School Choice tuition.”

“This episode is a test to our commitment to a comprehensive high school,” Wise said. A “comprehensive” school is one that is strong in both vocation and academic tracks. “Maybe we need to rethink that. Maybe we don’t have enough of a population…maybe we need to educate people at 300 to 400 at a time, instead of the 1,000 or more students in the big high schools I went to years ago.” Yet, Wise added, the Great Barrington Master Plan was “based on the assumption that we were not going into demographic collapse. I’m not a pollyanna, but I don’t think we’ll be a ghost town.” People are having smaller families, and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s (BRPC) population projections show “less young people.” But Wise also found that the population study by NESDEC (New England School Development Council) to be highly sophisticated. NESDEC is what the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) uses to analyze and approve projects.

What many residents find puzzling, but can’t put their finger on, is why the renovation debate grew so heated. Some have wondered if there is another element at play, other than tax worries.

Phillips felt this, too, she said. “The reason it feels bigger is because of how ugly it got. It became not about the project but about the people on each side. That really concerns me because we live in a small town — I may not always agree with others’ decisions, but I appreciate that they do their best — I do my best not to demonize them. Where it fell apart completely was when people started attacking each other.” Phillips said the pre-election environment “may be a harbinger of something bigger, as if the polarization of what’s happening in this country is happening in Great Barrington. Whatever lines we think we’re dividing along don’t make sense.”

Thomas Blauvelt, who serves with Wise on the Finance Committee said he was pleased with the vote, but that “tempers got out of control.” He recommended a “cooling off period,” and said “the best small town in America can come together.”

“If there’s a need to do repairs,” Blauvelt added, “it’s a good time. We’re entering budget discussions. We know we have to do repairs and everyone will support that, I believe. We want to deliver the best education for the kids at a price we can all afford. I don’t think anyone was looking to overlook the obligation to next generation of students.”

“I don’t think there’s any question the building needs serious attention,” David Long also wrote.

Throughout town, there appears to be little disagreement about the building.

“Those who led the ‘no’ vote,” Phillips said, “have a responsibility to make something happen.”

And what about those who led the “yes” vote?

“We have had a huge lesson here,” said Karen Smith, chair of the renovation steering committee, “and I think instead of reacting to the lesson we need to respond to the lesson.”


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