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District presents case for renovated high school; few turn out to hear it

"It’s hard for voters to feel that students are in such a desperate state, which is a credit to the school board. The output is so successful here that crying wolf really doesn’t work in this town." -- The Rev. Charles van Ausdall of the First Congregational Church

Temperatures may have turned cool, but the Berkshire Hills Regional School District sits in the hot seat as it explains to voters — for a second year in a row — why Monument Regional High School requires an overhaul. District voters will decide the fate of the aging school on November 4.

The district’s Steering Committee held the first of three information forums at Berkshire South Community Center in Great Barrington Monday night. Monument Principal Marianne Young, Owner’s Project Manager Jon Winikur, and Alex Pitkin of architectural firm Symmes, Maini and McKee (SMMA), offered a power point presentation to explain the deteriorating high school’s renovation needs, two options for fixing it, and what it will cost either way.

Despite the public controversy over the renovation proposal, only 25 people attended the information forum, including members of various committees related to the project, and the presenters, filling fewer than half the seats. A question-and-answer session — at times, heated — illuminated fault lines between residents over the project, should voters give it a green light on November 4. Of those who expressed worry over the scale and expense of the project, there were two main concerns: whether the school really needs fixing, and the tax hit as a result.

The Rev. Charles Van Ausdall, pastor of First Congregational Church in Great Barrington.
The Rev. Charles Van Ausdall, pastor of First Congregational Church in Great Barrington.

“It’s hard for voters to feel that students are in such a desperate state, which is a credit to the school board,” said Great Barrington First Congregational Church Pastor Charles Van Ausdall. He wondered whether the renovation would help test scores or help students get into better colleges. “The output is so successful here that crying wolf really doesn’t work in this town.”

Principal Young said she understood this perception. But looking into the relatively near future, she said, “students will be coming into a significantly more impaired building than it is now. Without arrogance, we are now a victim of our success, and of the support our community has given us over the years.”

Last November, Great Barrington voters shot down the original $55.6 million project to renovate the 48-year-old building. The Committee has returned to district voters with a slimmed down project of $51.2 million that will include a state reimbursement of $23.2 million. The district will take out a 25-year bond at 3.75 percent. The total cost to Great Barrington under this plan is $19.4 million, with the other district towns, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, responsible for the remainder.

The district maintains it is cheaper in the long run to do the big project all at once; more state money will apply because the renovation will bring the school up to its educational and building standards. The district also presented an alternative, a 10-year phased “repair only” option to fix unavoidable problems due to aging –and in some cases, failing — systems and infrastructure. (For information, reports, and communications between the district and the MSBA, click here.)

Because of the unpredictability of inflation rates, the $38.6 million repair-only plan was capped at the 10-year period for analysis. According to the district’s numbers from independent cost estimators, it is inflation that makes a piecemeal, repair-only plan ultimately more expensive, combined with a lower state reimbursement rate of $4.9 million. The repair-only plan will cost Great Barrington taxpayers $23.4 million, based on this analysis, $4 million more than the proposed renovation.

Alex Pitkin, left, and John Winikur of the architectural firm of Symmes, Maini & McKee, answer questions at the information session at the Community Center.
Alex Pitkin, left, and Jon Winikur of the architectural firm of Symmes, Maini & McKee, answer questions at the information session at the Community Center.

Beyond the full renovation option, implied Winikur, lies dicey territory. There is inflation, and a lower reimbursement rate to contend with. And the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s (MSBA) reimbursement program is highly competitive, with 12 other districts, he said, “vying for spots.” There’s no guarantee that the district could get back into it once out, and there could be no reimbursement at all, he added.

But why, some residents asked, do we need such a big, expensive renovation?

“It’s this or a larger nut that we’re all going to have to take up,” said Great Barrington resident and renovation outreach committee member Michael Wainwright, referring to the higher cost of the repair only option.

Both Winikur and Pitkin said that besides the necessary repairs to the building, fixing safety and security issues, things like lighting, audio and air quality have an effect on students. “There are 25 years of studies,” said Winikur, which correlate the two.

David Long of Great Barrington, Monument alumnus and parent, asked if these studies were “apples to apples” with regard to the high school building. Having spent time at MIT, he said, students there are “two steps away from a dank basement doing cutting edge stuff. It’s what you do in the space.”

Monument Regional His School Principal Marianne Young, defends need for a renovation.
Monument Regional His School Principal Marianne Young, defends need for a renovation.

 

Principal Young nodded, noting that Monument is doing good work despite circumstances, but she also said that classroom and space deficiencies were beginning to interfere with learning.

“Light and ventilation are a huge issue in the school. Science classrooms have not been updated,” she replied. The science infrastructure, she said, was squeaking by on just enough in terms of safety and flexibility. She also said that the vocational/career program spaces don’t meet Department of Elementary or Secondary School standards, “which are industry standards.”

“We are at a tipping point,” she added, “and the state in a few years may not approve us. This is proactive renovation so we can continue our level of performance.”

Great Barrington resident Vivian Orlowski threw a small, but distracting wrench into the forum. “Why are you assuming that 20, 30, 40 years from now we will have classroom based education, which was only developed in the 20th century. Why invest in model that may no longer be relevant.” Orlowski used Williams College as an example of a modern educational model of tutorial and “experiential learning.” She said a project based on the present model might be “overkill and not appropriate for the 21st century.”

Alex Pitkin, the district’s architect, stepped forward. Whatever their educational innovations, he said, “institutions like William’s and MIT have not stopped investing in their physical structure.”

Yet the question remains: Can project-weary Great Barrington taxpayers afford the investment?

“This is gonna hurt a lot of people,” said Great Barrington resident Andy Moro. “Right now this scares the hell out of us.”

Andy Moro, standing, calks on students from other districts to find some other place to be educated.
Andy Moro, standing, calks on students from other districts to find some other place to be educated.

Moro brought up one of several taxpayer sore spots, the district’s tuition program that allows students from other towns to pay into the district, but not at the full rate of the cost of educating a student. He called the program “a lot of legacy deals that aren’t so good.”

Tuition students make up 9 percent of the total, with the bulk coming from the towns of Otis, Sandisfield and Richmond, Winikur had said earlier.

District Superintendent Peter Dillon, who was not part of the presentation, but attended the session, said that the tuition program was “an agreement signed a long time ago…we terminated it last year, and we have ongoing conversations for new agreements.”

“Go somewhere else, I don’t care,” responded Moro, referring to tuition students and their fiscal impact.

A chart defining the number of choice-in students and their economic impact.
A chart defining the number of choice-in students and their economic impact.

Another raw spot is school choice, a program that allows students from other districts to enter a lottery for acceptance into Berkshire Hills. Right now there are 135 choice students in the high school, which at a capped $5,000 state reimbursement rate per child, nets the district $675,000 per year. An average of 99 district students choice out every year, costing the district around $600,000 – the higher expense due to special needs students. By law, the district cannot prevent students from leaving.

A compilation of the number of choice-out students, and its cost to the district.
A compilation of the number of choice-out students, and its cost to the district.

The choice-in program is where many a taxpayer beef lies, though the three towns have continued to allow the program since it began in 1992. The state’s reimbursement is less than half the full cost of educating a student, leaving the district to pick up the rest. Yet the choice program, the district says, brings in much needed revenue to continue certain programs.

A table showing the number of tuition and choice-in students.
A table comparing the number of choice, tuition and resident students currently enrolled in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

Another district resident said that other towns “ought to pay more.” And Housatonic resident Michelle Loubert said that the tax increase would be “devastating” for her family. “It won’t be advantageous to families if they can’t afford to live in their house anymore,” she said of the proposed renovation, adding that the tax hit will hurt less “if you’re lucky enough to live in Stockbridge.”

Stockbridge resident Kim Bradway expressed offense at this remark. Loubert said that as a Stockbridge resident, Ms. Bradway’s tax rate wouldn’t be as high. But before the argument could continue, district renovation Steering Committee chair Karen Smith gave it the kibosh. “Ladies!” she hollered from the back row.

Each of the three towns will be taxed according to its percentage of students in the district, making Great Barrington’s tax nut higher than the other two towns. Great Barrington’s general population is the highest of the three.

Yet another renovation battlefront is population projections, for which Great Barrington resident Patrick Fennell was on hand to point to a 28 percent drop in student populations, using the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s recent census-based data. Fennell, at one point, bizarrely referred to the MSBA as behaving “like a crime family in Boston.”

MSBA estimates predict steady enrollment in the district.
MSBA estimates predict steady enrollment in the district.

The MSBA’s own data, however, show a steady rise in the number of Monument High students to over 600 over the next few years, and a steady rate of students just below or near the 600-student mark into 2024. The school is designed for 570 students.

The MSBA, said Winikur, is suspicious of districts trying cook the enrollment books. So they “took it upon themselves to make the projections.” Over the years, he said, “they felt like districts were artificially inflating the numbers (of students).”

Both Long and Loubert asked for detailed data, to which Winikur said, “I can get you whatever you want.” Loubert said she shouldn’t have to “go digging” for information, and said to Winikur and Young, “you’re the people selling this to me…” The information, said both Winikur and Young, has always been available.

School Committee vice chair and Education Technology chair Richard Bradway said he would post all documents related to the project on the district’s temporary website by the end of this week. He, too, noted that the information has always been available in print, and on the district’s website until the website went down this past summer. The district has struggled with Internet issues, and have temporary sites in place.

Tax concerns and alternative education models notwithstanding, the problem of the actual building remains. Based on the district’s analysis, waiting for what the future may bring may incur risk.

“Just like a house and any building,” said Winikur, “you need to re-invest when things are coming past their useful life.” The building, he said, is in bad enough shape for the MSBA to offer help in such a competitive situation. “You have to prove (to them) that your building has deteriorating conditions,” he said.

Winikur, who frequently works with school districts, said “we see lots of buildings; this is not a nice building.”

“There is a lot to be said for design…good light and space are important,” said Great Barrington resident and architect Chris Vlcek. He said the renovation should be a “no brainer, not for now, but for 20 years from now. We should have the vision…”

“Is there really not a third way?” said David Long, referring to the two options of either renovate or simply repair.

A third way, said Winikur, may mean lost reimbursements from the state. “The school committee did their job,” he said of the district’s hard work over the years to place the two options on the table. “And you can disagree with it.”

 

Remaining information forums, Great Barrington:

Saturday, September 13, Tour of school: 2 p.m. Information Meeting: 3 p.m., Monument Mountain Regional High School, childcare provided.

Tuesday, September 16, 7:00 p.m. Claire Teague Senior Center, 917 Main Street.

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