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Berkshire Hills struggles with plan for aging Monument High building

It was 57 degrees in Monuments Regional High School science labs and several more barrels had appeared in hallways to catch leaks. Indeed, students report several space heaters in a biology classroom where the teacher recommended they wear hats and fingerless gloves for Friday’s bitter temperatures.

Great Barrington — The Berkshire Hills School Committee is attempting to address Monument Mountain Regional High School’s failing infrastructure amid a challenging economic and political landscape after Great Barrington voted down the $51 million renovation project last fall.

It is a puzzle of state regulations and compliance codes up against taxes and inflation.

Had the vote succeeded, Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) would have thrown in $24 million, Great Barrington would have been responsible for $19 million–Stockbridge and West Stockbridge the remainder.

One of the barrels in high school hallways stationed under roof leaks.
One of the barrels in high school hallways stationed under roof leaks.

“There are seven to eight active leaks in the roof,” said Berkshire Hills Facilities Director Steven Soule at an official School Committee meeting the following night. Soule said he would hire someone to patch them.

But Band-Aids only last so long, and therein is the heart of the committee’s struggle over the building; do they fix the roof to hold out for five years, or do they fix it to last 20? And whatever work is decided upon, there are those murky waters of when code compliance, such as ADA (American Disabilities Act) or Seismic, gets tripped by the repairs themselves.

“We owe it to the community and ourselves,” said committee chair Stephen Bannon, at an informal “Meet and Confer” last Wednesday (January 28) in the Monument library, “to get some expert to tell us when we trip, or when we’ve gone too far and have to meet complete code in this building.”

The building and grounds subcommittee began meeting last fall to prioritize the list of urgent issues that need repair. That list began with the most critical: security and safety, and moved on to the roof, boilers, and other systems.

It is an expensive list. The roof alone, for instance, is roughly estimated to cost between $5 million to $9 million.

School Committee member Bill Field.
School Committee member Bill Fields.

Bill Fields said he wanted a plan for urgent repairs to be undertaken immediately, and appeared frustrated by the inherently slow pace of making large repairs and overhauls to the building. “Students are in this building now,” he said.

“But the urgent repairs are such big ticket items,” said Richard Dohoney, “and once you start any one of these big ticket items, we’re being irresponsible by not addressing others all at the same time…by doing them incrementally, it costs so much more.”

“What needs to be done so that students can be safely educated in this building for the next 20 years?” Dohoney wondered.

“If we’re doing anything for less than 20 years,” Daniel Weston said, “we’re not doing a service to the taxpayers.”

Soule said that with a list of the exact repairs to be undertaken, an expert could likely determine at what point in the work code compliance becomes necessary. He added that the work is “eventually going to trip this mysterious line [code] line…” As a result, he said, when the roof is overhauled, all the work on the roof such as trusses and insulation will be done.

“…The whole shooting match — that’s roof for the next 20 to 25 years…and it will meet every code that applies to a roof structure.”

Committee Chair Stephen Bannon pointed out that there is “no budget for an architect and engineer,” and said that to keep this process going, that would have to go into the budget.

“It’s silly to do all this work [to last] 20 years and not take care of science labs,” said buildings and grounds subcommittee member Richard Bradway, referring to one of the more notably antiquated areas of the school that was to be modernized had the renovation been approved.

“The community has told us that we have to live with them,” Daniel Weston reminded him.

Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee.
Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee.

And Frederick Clark went a step further, reminding the committee of what last fall’s renovation battle royal was all about. “We need to start at a more basic analysis of what has happened — re-examine our charge, what the task and goals of the school committee are and should be. Physical solutions are obvious, but I don’t think they are the beginning of the discussion.”

Clark was referring to fairness issues that, last fall, sparked the voter meltdown, and that upon greater analysis, may have an impact on how big the high school should really be: school choice and tuition, the regional agreement between the three towns in the district, and declining population projections are among a host of issues. All of it has led to soul-searching among school officials, with some steps taken towards rectifying the problems.

“In the meantime, the building gets worse and worse, and it gets more expensive to do the work,” Fields said. Clark said he didn’t disagree “at all,” but that “we have to change something.” He wondered if minimizing the size of the building in general would reduce costs, but noted that it would require a cut to the student population.

Weston said the idea was worth consideration. “A smaller population might give us flexibility,” he said. And Dohoney said he is “a proponent of expanding the district.” He asked if this idea could be pursued on a separate track than addressing the physical plant, and noted that the MSBA gives “incentives to districts who want to expand their district and do a renovation in conjunction with that.”

It is a labyrinth: “We have choice and tuition [students] not just for the finances,” Bannon said. “We have it so we can offer more to the students. We offer AP [Advanced Placement]…” He said he wasn’t sure how voters would feel about cuts to such programs.

“We can talk this to death,” Fields said, noting that recently it was 57 degrees in Monument science labs and that several more barrels had appeared in the hallways to catch leaks. Indeed, students report several space heaters in a biology classroom where the teacher recommended they wear hats and fingerless gloves to class for Friday’s predicted bitter temperatures.

“We have a building that needs to work right now,” Fields said.

And Clark, despite wanting to sort out strategic planning issues first, said there was value in a “systemic” renovation from an education standpoint, and that “there is something more that we could gain…that we should reach for and be striving for. It isn’t as simple as boilers and roofs…”

Bannon noted the limitations of the MSBA, with its stringent requirements for projects, and how challenging it is to come up with a solution that will both receive state funding and not set taxpayers on edge. “Maybe we don’t need the MSBA,” he said.

“I don’t think [the committee] will ever design a project that the MSBA and the voters of Great Barrington will agree on,” Dohoney said.

Monument Principal Marianne Young.
Monument Principal Marianne Young.

“It always came back to money,” said Monument Principal Marianne Young, referring to the renovation vote. She spoke passionately about the robust educational vision of the high school, and agreed with Clark’s assessment that a systemic overhaul is crucial to that vision. “No one (voters) ever said those kids aren’t worth it,” she added. “People agreed on the educational vision. They said we’d love to have those classrooms for our kids. We just can’t afford it.”

“The failure of the project wasn’t about schools,” Superintendent Peter Dillon said. “The high school was the last of seven major projects in Great Barrington after years of bad planning and people kicking the can down the road. If the high school had come before the fire station, [the vote] might have passed.”

At Young’s suggestion, the committee ultimately decided to pursue separate tracks of planning simultaneously, for the building and its physical needs, as well as the tangential financial issues like the district agreement. Dillon and Bannon have scheduled a three town meeting for February 17 to discuss the possibility of amending the district agreement between Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. But Dillon didn’t think it sensible to “hang our hopes” on changing the allocation formula between the towns. He is clearly willing to try, however.

But for all the talk of how to fix the aging high school, Dillon wants to make sure this year’s operating budget, one “that supports teaching and learning,” does not come to harm, “as pressing as these capital projects are.”

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