MSBA: No accelerated repairs money for Monument Mountain High School
Great Barrington — It was a revelatory thunderbolt shot down onto taxpayers last night from the gods of state money: It appears Berkshire Hills Regional School District won’t get a dime under the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s (MSBA) Accelerated Repair Program to fix Monument Mountain Regional High School. The news prefaces a Sisyphean task of funding repairs or renovations to the building, and may put the towns on the hook for much of the cost of repairs to the deteriorating school.
The announcement was made by Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon at last night’s (November 20) marathon school committee meeting.
“What this [letter] is saying is what many of us thought would be the case,” Dillon said, “and what many other people believed wasn’t the case, which was that the state was offering us one opportunity.”
It is bad news for Great Barrington taxpayers, who overwhelmingly defeated the District’s $51 million renovation project that included $23.2 million from the MSBA under its Major Repair Program. Opponents of the project had assumed a better deal could be made through the MSBA’s Accelerated Repair Program, an assumption upon which they leveraged a political strategy in the months leading up to the project vote, and for which the district warned them was not a sound basis to vote no.
Had the renovation passed, Great Barrington was to foot $19.4 million of that remaining bill, after Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, the other two towns in the district, took care of the rest. That $23.2 million from the state is now history.
The news came in the form of a letter to Dillon from MSBA Capital Program Manager Katie Loeffler, after an election follow-up conference call, and a letter containing the results of the November 4 vote. The Accelerated Repair Program only targets schools with isolated repair issues, Loeffler explained, not the extensive structural and system deterioration seen at Monument. The Program, Loeffler said, “targets school facilities with limited scope needs including roofs, windows and boilers in cases where all other systems are functioning and programmatic offerings are meeting standards.”
Loeffler goes on to say that according to the school’s needs based on the District’s 2010 Statement of Interest (SOI), drafted in 2008, and a Feasibility Study, the building “does not appear to sufficiently meet the educational needs of the District, nor does it appear to function soundly…therefore, it would appear more extensive repair or renovation work beyond the scope of the Accelerated Repair Program would be necessary.”
“I always feared they would write us a letter like this,” said committee member Dan Weston.
“You didn’t fear it — you knew it,” said member Richard Dohoney, who expressed some irritation with the MSBA’s process, which he said, “ripped the community apart and has had terrible repercussions.” Dohoney added that the process had “sucked all the oxygen out of the school district” over the last few years, but wondered what the alternative was. For instance, “We can’t dump it on the finance committee,” he said. “We’ve got to do it right this time, we’ve got to figure out the right way.”
Committee member Bill Fields said he understood Dohoney’s feelings, but “politically and realistically I don’t see an alternative [to MSBA].”
The letter contained a warning that had been sounded for months by the district and renovation supporters: rejecting the project and the state’s reimbursement might result in a loss of state funds altogether and push the district to the back of a competitive line for funding. For six years the school building committee explored repair and renovation options for the 46-year-old high school and found itself bumping up against educational and physical plant requirements for sizable state money to be released.
But many renovation opponents had trouble believing it, and were seduced by the possibility of higher MSBA reimbursements under an Accelerated Repair Program. This floated possibility was used as a hatchet to kill the project; the assumptions were made based on research of other MSBA projects around the state that received higher reimbursements through the Program, including the news that nearby Southern Berkshire Regional School District is to receive a significant reimbursement to repair their roof and boilers at Mt. Everett High School.
Mt. Everett’s building is 24 years old.
So compelling was the idea of the Accelerated Repair alternative, circulated through community chat groups and newspapers, that a recently created citizen petition even contained an application for urgent repairs to the school under the Accelerated Repair Program as one of their proposals. The petition was authored by Great Barrington residents Karen Christensen and Ron Banks.
“Our focus on local contractors is all the more timely,” Christensen said by email when asked if the MSBA aspect of the petition required a revision. The petition, she wrote, was intended to be “an ongoing initiative and living document.” She pointed to the first FAQ on the petition website, www.gb21.info, which explains how local contractors might be used.
“Repairs should be made as quickly as possible,” Christensen added, “and I see no reason that this cannot be moved on immediately.” Ron Banks could not be reached by press time.
“Many people called the MSBA,” Dillon said, “and tried to get their own sense of things, but the MSBA always said that they don’t respond to hypothetical situations…we’ve now confronted them with a concrete situation and they’ve given us a very clear answer.”
“Now that the vote failed…they are willing to go on record,” said committee chair Stephen Bannon, who suggested a new, larger, more inclusive committee — one formed with community members from both sides of the previous renovation debate.
Committee member Fred Clark said the whole issue was “beyond bricks and mortar,” that problems are “broader and have to do with strategic direction and having one town bear the burden of costs.”
Bannon that these strategic issues are being addressed, and pointed, as an example, to the “citizens group” forming to “look at school choice.” Quite clearly the committee is grappling with the complexity of these issues. They spent most of the meeting agonizing over how to address shaky tuition agreement negotiations with the Farmington River district. The school committee voted to play hardball and ask that district for a 6 percent increase for a one-year agreement, though if rejected, there is risk both in the form of significant revenue loss and the potential toll on students who have settled into Berkshire Hills but may be forced to leave if their district will not increase their percentage. The motion passed, with new member Andrew Potter and Christine Shelton dissenting, and Kristin Piasecki abstaining.
Clark said such strategic issues should have been looked at “ a year ago…to figure out how big this district is going to be and how to get fair and equitable payment…even the people who were against it understand that the building needs to be renovated.”
Richard Bradway agreed that the tangential equity issues are “critical discussions,” yet “however long these discussions take, there are kids that are in that school and we need to make sure we’re providing them with a structure over their heads that is sound.”
Clark said there was never a “fall back plan” or a “Plan B,” and that a lot of “misinformation” was put out there. He made reference to newspapers and some of their editorials.
“We need to get out in front of some of these things and have an open and frank discussion about these issues,” Clark added. “Everyone else is setting the agenda for these issues, and putting all these things out there that, quite frankly, aren’t well-grounded.”
Finance Committee member and vocal renovation supporter Leigh Davis spoke to the committee about the letter from the MSBA: “This is huge loss, almost a self-fulfilling prophecy…a big turning point for the town and school district.”
Former school committee member Alan Wilken said “I feel your pain, it’s a difficult time.” He said it was possible that the “district has outlived its mission,” and that this might be an “opportunity to rethink the district,” and “see where we want education to be in 40 years.”
It would appear that receiving MSBA reimbursement is now out of question, unless the district resubmits another SOI and goes to the back of the funding line for another Major Repair Program renovation, a process that takes a number of years. This was a concern Bannon repeated tirelessly over the last several months. Loeffler stated that a resubmitted SOI will be compared with SOIs from other districts and assessed as to which districts are “most needy and urgent.”
The school committee, with its buildings and grounds subcommittee, will now prioritize the high school’s problems and determine whether to submit another SOI, Dillon said.
Facilities Manager Steven Soule said the ineligibility for Accelerated Repair was “unfortunate.” He said in the short term the district will continue to do preventative maintenance, and “fix as things break.” In a buildings and grounds committee meeting scheduled for December 10, “we’ll be looking at prioritizing what is most critical for repair, and what to repair in a 5-year range.” One immediate problem, Soule said, was 14 doors that require “daily maintenance and adjustment to close and secure properly.” He said the concrete thresholds are crumbling, and so the job would cost more than to simply fix the doors. He said that at that point it would also make sense to make them handicap accessible.
The roof, Soule said, is “well out of warranty and leaking with frequency.” He said it could cost as little as $3 million to replace only the rubber membrane, but to do the insulating and bracing work required to pass current code, it could cost up to $8 million or $9 million.
Committee member Richard Bradway said after the meeting that there might be other funding through state and federal green building programs. Steve Bannon said by phone he thought it likely to find other funding for “piecemeal repairs in small batches.”