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An aerial view of the campus of schools comprising the Berkshire Hills Regional School District. In center is Monument Mountain Regional High School. In center left is Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School, and above Muddy Brook is Monument Valley Regional Middle School.

Facts about a new Monument: State funds don’t drive costs; there’s money in mergers

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By Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018 News 5

Stockbridge — In its quest to rebuild Monument Mountain Regional High School, the committee charged with coming up with a plan has learned that foregoing state funds do not save money on labor and that creating a new school district could add a whopping 6 percentage points to the state’s share of the costs of a potential building project.

Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon cautioned against reading too much into the dollar figures presented at the Monument Next Steps meeting held June 19. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Those were just some of the fun facts that emerged from a one-hour session the committee, dubbed Monument Next Steps, held Tuesday evening with Jon Winikur, a school building consultant who was retained by the district for the two previous failed attempts to fix the high school.

Click here to view the presentation. Superintendent Peter Dillon cautioned against reading too much into the dollar figures presented since they were from the last failed project of almost four years ago. The laws Winikur cited, however, remain the same.

Winikur led the members of the committee and handful of audience members at the district offices in Stockbridge through a slideshow addressing several items the panel was concerned about, including building codes, labor issues and how to maximize reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

See video below of consultant Jon Winikur explaining the MSBA process:

 

Winikur quickly dispelled misinformation that had been circulating about the costs associated with projects supported by the MSBA and projects in which the school district simply goes it alone.

It had been conventional wisdom in Great Barrington that taking MSBA money adds to the cost of a project because the authority insists the school district’s contractors be certified by the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance and also pay prevailing wage — which would exclude the vast majority of local contractors.

It turns out that any project costing more than $150,000 that uses public money must have DCAMM-certified contractors. And for any public project using taxpayer dollars, the workers must be paid prevailing wage, which is defined as the minimum hourly wage set by the state for public construction projects.

School building consultant Jon Winikur explains state law and regulations on funding to the Monument Next Steps committee at at June 19 meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“In the public sector, there’re pretty strong laws,” said Winikur, whose company, Collier International, is based in Connecticut. “Massachusetts has some of the strongest regulations in the country … They mandate a higher cost for everyone who is involved with the project. There is nothing you can do about it. That’s just the law.”

Berkshire Hills Regional School District director of operations Steve Soule said the last time the district tried to renovate Monument four years ago, there was only one general contractor in Berkshire County that was DCAMM-certified.

“It costs money to become DCAMM certified, so the smaller contractors … who make their living on private work, they don’t necessarily want public work,” Soule explained.

“You hope they will bring the workers in locally, but you can’t mandate that by law,” added Winikur.

As for MSBA reimbursement, the district was set to see the state pick up a large percentage of the tab last time. This will be the third try since 2013 to get state aid for the ailing high school. Within the span of one year, a pair of $50 million-plus proposals failed when Great Barrington, by far the largest of the three towns in the district, failed to approve an override to Proposition 2½, a state statute that limits tax levy increases. In both cases, the state would have paid for almost 41 percent of the cost, not counting incentives.

The base state reimbursement rate is determined largely by the perceived wealth of the district. But there are several ways in which a district can bump up its state reimbursement rate.

Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee and Monument Next Steps member Jason St. Peter of Stockbridge asks school building consultant Jon Winikur a question at a June 19 Monument Next Steps committee meeting. To his left is school committee and Next Steps member Kristin Piasecki of West Stockbridge. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Strong maintenance and renovation/reuse programs, for example, can add up to 7 additional percentage points. A so-called green school can added 2 percentage points. Berkshire Hills was able to take advantage of those incentives to bring the reimbursement up to almost 50 percent.

But the largest incentive (up to 6 additional percentage points) lies in the formation of a new school district as part of the building project. The topic might resonate with South County residents because, with declining enrollments. there have been committees formed to consider consolidations and mergers.

The driving force behind regional school consolidation is enrollments, which are dropping at an alarming pace. Berkshire County school districts saw enrollment losses of 22 percent between 2000 and 2015. The UMass Donahue Institute has projected an additional decline of 11 percent between 2015 and 2025 with more enrollment losses projected over the following decade.

To the south of Berkshire Hills, the Southern Berkshire Regional School District had 1,072 students in the year 2000. It has about 650 now, having lost 6 percent of its enrollment this year. But by 2025, Southern Berkshire is projected to have only 462 in all grades across the five towns in the district, according to a Berkshire Regional Planning Commission study.

Most observers think that a merger with Berkshire Hills makes the most sense for Southern Berkshire, which is isolated geographically from the rest of the county.

Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee Chairman Steve Bannon spoke of the difficulty of talking mergers with neighboring school districts at a Monument Next Steps meeting held June 19. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Any merger tied to a new school could be a tough sell, said Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee Chairman Steve Bannon of Great Barrington, “especially since the school districts around us us have all used MSBA money and updated their high schools and they may still be paying.”

Bannon characterized talks with districts such as Lee, Lenox and Southern Berkshire as “a difficult discussion … Now, if two neighboring school districts — ours and another one — each had high schools 50 years old that hadn’t been renovated, it would be an easier discussion to have.”

Indeed, only three years ago Southern Berkshire spent $7.7 million on a new roof and boilers for Mount Everett Regional School. The district was reimbursed for 39 percent of the cost, or about $2.6 million through the MSBA’s Accelerated Repair Program.

That left Southern Berkshire with several million dollars worth of bonded debt that it is still paying off. If Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills were to merge, then it’s not clear how that debt would be paid off and by whom.

Next Steps member Rebecca Gold asked Winikur if he knew any projects that had taken advantage of what she called the “new-district incentive point.”

“Have you had experience with that — in using renovation as a lure for other districts to join?” Gold asked. “Any thoughts on how that could possibly work?”

Monument Next Steps member Rebecca Gold asked school building consultant Jon Winikur about the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s new school district incentive at a June 19 Monument Next steps meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Winikur told the panel he was involved in a project in western Massachusetts that coincided with the formation of a new school district, now called the Southwick-Tolland-Granville Regional School District.

The district was formed in 2011 when Granville joined the other two towns. Click here to read the district agreement. The district embarked on a $72 million project that included a new middle and high school, but the MSBA reimbursed the new district more than 60 percent, or $42.6 million.

“They got an extra 6 percent, which is a lot of money coming from the state,” said Winikur.

Interestingly, the first try at passing the proposition for the new STG school failed because Southwick, like Great Barrington, is the largest town in the district and refused to pass a Proposition 2½ override.

As it did with Berkshire Hills, the MSBA granted STG an extension so that the school committee could go back to the drawing board for another try. The STG school committee used a creative approach that combined reducing the scope of the project — which saved $2 million — reallocating a capital borrowing program and convincing officials in Southwick to divert savings from mature town bonds to help finance the school building project.

It worked. The Proposition 2½ override passed May 8, 2012, in Southwick the second time around and the expanded and renovated Southwick Regional School opened in 2015.

Bannon said the next meeting of the Next Steps panel will be Tuesday, July 24, at 6 p.m. at the high school. The meeting will be preceded by a brief tour of the building. Next Step officers will be appointed at that time.


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5 Comments   Add Comment

  1. John says:

    The need for an ever expanding high school no longer exists. Rightsizing is essential, in both size of the school and consequent budget.
    A merger is the only way to go. Minds need to be very open.

  2. Steve Farina says:

    We have two relatively new school buildings in town, and a declining student population. Why not just consolidate in place. Move the 7th graders to the elementary building, and 8-12 into the middle school building. Most Juniors and seniors are not in the building for more than 4 hours a day, anyway. And if need be, do a little shift in the school hours for those grades. The buildings could all be fully utilized, staffing overhead reduced ( including one of rhe $100K/yr principals) and no additional transportation issues. This might even lead to a property tax reduction.
    The high school building could then either be torn down and utilized as others have mentioned for a sports complex, or maybe partially renovated for sports, and arts complex, maybe even move the district offices into it.
    Meanwhile as technology is embraced over the next few years, the requirements for the physical buildings could be adapted more readily.

    1. Jerry says:

      So in this plan, are the 5th and 6th grade eliminated? Maybe 2 years abroad or maybe just a 2 year visit to a school district that cares about its students?

      1. John says:

        Jerry,
        The teachers unions have driven the schools against rational decisions for a long time.
        Time to rightsize the schools and put kids first. I do like your creative thinking! I for one am happy to share that my sons experience abroad was fantastic. A year abroad might just be less expensive than many of the alternatives!

      2. Steve Farina says:

        Jerry, can you expound on your thought process? I fail to see your reasoning.

        We have declining enrollments, yet the building size is unchanging. Therefore there is unutilized space. The idea I put forth will better utilize the space, especially as enrollments continue to decline. There would be no need for a $50M renovation, no need to bus students all over the county just to accommodate school district mergers (please note there is no inherent improvement in education due to consolidation ).
        There still would be issues to work out, though I suspect they will cost the taxpayers less than $50 million dollars. This solution also maintains local control of the education of our children.

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