District vetted alternative plans, Monument renovation advocates insist

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By Tuesday, Oct 7 Learning, News  1 Comment
Heather Bellow
During a training session for volunteer advocates at Crissey Farm Berkshire Hills School Committee member Rich Bradway explains the decision-making process behind and the reasoning for the proposed $51 million renovation of Monument Mountain Regional High School that will come before district voters on November 4.

Great Barrington — Advocates of the Monument Mountain Regional High School renovation project held a training session at Crissey Farm last Tuesday to sharpen the swords of warrior outreach in advance of the November 4 ballot question.

The renovation advocacy group, Monument Matters, is working hard to counter the climate of mistrust among some Great Barrington residents who think the Berkshire Hills Regional School District either suppressed or failed to vet a less expensive alternative to the project up for vote. The district says that it did vet numerous options, choosing the one that would repair and add educational value to the school building, and increase the state reimbursement rate.

The renovation item will be on a separate ballot, and will run the entire 13-hour length of the November 4 general election.

If there are any cures for sticker shock over the project’s $51 million price tag, they can be found in the facts, says Monument Matters.

“People look at a number like $51 million and just go crazy,” said Karen Smith, chair of the Berkshire Hills Regional District’s renovation steering committee. “There is a ton of misinformation.”

Last year, Great Barrington voters shot down the district’s original $56 million plan to fix the deteriorating 46-year-old school and its systems, and bring it up to safety codes and state educational standards. The district came back with a slightly 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. A hypothetical scenario in which the building is simply repaired, the district says, has taxpayers ultimately paying more due to erratic building and system breakdowns, and the volatility of inflation. The full renovation, it says, is a way of ultimately controlling costs.

The volunteer training session for advocates of the Monument Mountain Regional High School renovation project took place at Crissey Farm.

The volunteer training session for advocates of the Monument Mountain Regional High School renovation project took place at Crissey Farm.

But even that $19.4 million has some Great Barrington taxpayers squirming and wondering why the town shouldn’t gamble on piecemeal repairs to the school. Housatonic resident David Long went so far as to develop his own rough draft of an alternative plan that, he says, works around the district’s price tag. District Building Committee Chair Dick Coons’ took issue with Long’s plan, noting the complexity of standards compliance required for robust state funding, and how one piecemeal repair or addition can, in a domino effect, trigger other code requirements. Long’s alternative, said Coons, would wind up costing taxpayers more.

At the meeting, outreach coordinator and Great Barrington resident Michael Wainwright said state reimbursements — in the event of a sudden system or structural meltdown — would be unpredictable. Funding requests for repairs, he added, “will still have to go to MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority), then to the voters to approve it.”

Despite hundreds of public meetings the committee has been accused of suppressing the Core Repair Program alternative, said Smith, that detractors say would result in a higher state reimbursement. But that is not the case. Every community starts at a 31 percent rate, said Smith, before the MSBA applies socioeconomic indicators, including community income and poverty factors. Additional “incentive points” for standards compliance gave the project its 48.25 percent state reimbursement rate (see chart below)

A chart showing the calculation for  MSBA reimbursement rates.

A chart showing the calculation for MSBA reimbursement rates.

.According to Smith and Jon Winikur of Strategic Solutions, the district’s project owner’s manager, the maximum reimbursement for the district in the Core Major Repair Program would theoretically be only 40.9 percent, because incentive points are not applied to a plan that does not meet state educational, energy efficiency and other standards. The MSBA, however, won’t commit to a rate, as they will not entertain hypothetical scenarios. “We wouldn’t speculate on [reimbursements] for a plan B or other alternatives,” said Dan Collins, MSBA spokesman.

Winikur, who has 20 plus MSBA-funded school projects under his belt, calculated the 40.9 percent rate using the MSBA’s formulas. “All we can do is go on [reimbursement] experience,” he said.

But it’s hard to fight tax terror with complex formulas. Smith said the School Building Committee analyzed both the renovation or repair approaches for six years and brought “14 iterations” to the School Committee for input and approval.

“They [the critics] say [the Core Major Repair option] was hidden,” said Smith. “Now Steve Soule will un-hide it.”

“We had to submit all the options,” said district Facilities Director Steve Soule. “The ‘do nothing’ option meant only bringing [the building] up to code for safety and ADA [compliance]. It’s not on the table. It’s foolish to do that option.”

“Why are our kids going to a school without fire suppression systems?” asked Stockbridge resident Dr. Mark Sprague.

“It was grandfathered in,” said Soule, but any repair may trigger code requirements, he added, forcing more elaborate repairs and renovations.

“Why wasn’t there a capital expenditure account for a 50-year old boiler?” asked one Stockbridge resident.

Soule said he “had no means to carry that kind of expenditure.”

At last, it had come time to rally the outreach troops and their world of Facebook, coffee klatches and newspaper advertisements.

Housatonic resident Ellen Lahr, parent of two Monument graduates, stood up and asked “how to talk to people” about the project. “We need to go to where the people are and stop asking them to come out to meetings,” she advised.

Lahr said she would form a small battalion to reach Great Barrington voters. “We need to get $51 million out of the lexicon and introduce $28 [million],” she said of the $28 million total nut for the three district towns after the state pays the rest.

Renovation outreach coordinator and Great Barrington resident Rebecca Gold said she was “shocked how little parents in the [school] system know [about the project].”

Stockbridge resident Corey Sprague did know, however, that her daughter, a Monument junior, had been “running around [the school] with buckets” to catch water leaks. Monument’s roof is one of the buildings’ failing structures.

Outreach coordinator and Great Barrington Finance Committee member Leigh Davis said a “role play” of how to talk to voters would be helpful.

And so it began. Someone asked, “why pay for this when we have a population decline?”

“Great Barrington does not follow the rest of [Berkshire] county — another reason why we don’t get a higher MSBA reimbursement,” said Smith, referring to the MSBA’s funding parameters.

Smith said that the tax calculator on monumentmatters.org will show people exactly what their increase will be if the renovation goes forward, a project to be completed by 2018. From there taxpayers can divide it to see the monthly impact, something Smith says will frame the tax hike in more manageable terms. Smith also noted Great Barrington’s senior abatement policy, where seniors can work for the town one half hour per week — at the voting booth, for instance — for $1,000 per year. She said this might help older residents offset any tax hike.

Why renovate when we’re still paying for the other two schools [the elementary and middle schools], someone else wanted to know.

“Because we have a $24 million dollar grant to do it now,” said Great Barrington Selectman Ed Abrahams, an outspoken advocate of the project.

But it is the projects of the last ten years — two new schools, a fire station and a library rehab — that have contributed to the atmosphere of taxpayer revolt and suspicion. Smith said this is a result of Great Barrington’s habit of putting off expensive public projects to the detriment of future generations, waiting until its older buildings desperately need repair and upgrade. Indeed, the old Searles and Bryant schools, the Mason Library and the old fire station on Castle Street are more than 90 years old.

“This community has a pattern for decades that they kick it down the line,” Smith added. She said it boils down to fear. “People are scared that they’re going to get priced out of their homes.”

“This [renovation controversy] is really a socioeconomic question about the changes in South County over the years,” said Alford resident and former United States Congressional candidate Bill Shein.

A moment of silence fell, even upon the loquacious Smith; Shein’s chisel had hit upon something. As November 4 draws near, attacks on the district have grown more vitriolic and personal. This has puzzled some, particularly its elected volunteer committees whose members are themselves taxpayers. Shein’s observation may hold water, explaining shifts that may have created resentment in a changing rural town.

Still, some of the rancor is shot from within the same socioeconomic fish bowl. On tranquil Castle Hill, a neighborhood of mostly large, drafty and well-kept Victorian houses, the renovation controversy has shattered the peace in many a liberal heart. The price of a small home on “The Hill” starts at around the median overall Great Barrington assessment. Amid Priuses with fading Obama For President bumper stickers and closely tended gardens is HillGB, a Google group whose members usually attend to the business of sharing house painters or registering bear sightings. Mostly, it is a helpful, civil forum, though occasionally there is a passive-aggressive stab over something or other.

But HillGB caught fire last week after one of its members opened his property tax bill, reported his dismay to the group and proceeded to knock the renovation project. This released the floodgates for some Hill residents — those incidentally without school-age children or whose children attend private schools — to chime in and question the district’s motives and transparency.

“People voting against [the renovation] think they will save money,” said Great Barrington resident Steve Handel at the outreach meeting.

Great Barrington Finance Committee member Michael Wise.

Great Barrington Finance Committee member Michael Wise.

It isn’t true, said Ed Abrahams, repeating his refrain: “Taxes are going up anyway. Everything’s going up.”

“We have to figure out how we can afford [the renovation],” said Great Barrington Finance Committee member Michael Wise, after the meeting. Wise’s voice had a supportive, but sober tenor. “[Great Barrington] taxes are very high, even for Berkshire County. We have to find a way to adjust the tax schedule so we can do [the renovation].”

Perhaps Wise has a solution up his sleeve? Stay tuned.

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