Great Barrington — At a meeting Tuesday night (March 9) the panel charged with recommending a plan for the rebuilding of Monument Mountain Regional High School was unable to reach a consensus on an approach.
Monument Next Steps, the panel charged by the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee with coming up with a plan, mulled two approaches during a meeting of more than two hours: renovate the school on its existing footprint and construct an addition; or simply build a new school elsewhere on the Stockbridge Road campus.
The panel considered one against the other weighing costs, safety, educational impact and political feasibility. Click here to see the homework sheet the 14 members had to fill out in advance of the meeting.
In either case, everyone on the committee agreed that the construction should be designed to accommodate the school’s popular and burgeoning Career/Vocational Technical Education program.
See full video below of April 9, 2019, Monument Next Steps meeting:
“Everyone wants CVTE to be a major part of it,” said Next Steps co-chair Paul Gibbons, the retired Monument athletic director.
The devil, however, was in the details, as panelists debated the pros and cons of building a brand-new new school or stripping the old one down to its core, constructing an addition and adding sprinkler systems and new infrastructure.
Arguing for the renovation and addition was Monument graduate and Stockbridge native Joshua Shapiro, who teaches at his undergraduate alma mater, New York University, and has offered to synthesize Next Steps’ findings and put them into a multimedia presentation to the school committee at its Thursday, May 2, meeting.
And there is the matter of reimbursement for part of the costs by the Massachusetts School Building Authority and whether to try to take advantage of the authority’s Model School Program, the incentives of which could raise the level of reimbursement significantly. Click here for a primer on the program and here to see the process for gaining MSBA approval that Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon explained.
Also weighing heavily on the minds of Next Steps members were the two most recent attempts to rebuild Monument. 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.
Both proposals were marketed as attempts to “Renovate Monument” on the same footprint despite price tags that more resembled a new school. The other two towns in the district, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, voted overwhelmingly to approve the projects.
Next Steps members noted with some satisfaction that, on Saturday, voters in the Central Berkshire Regional School District narrowly approved a $72 million proposal for a new Wahconah Regional High School building project in Dalton.
“When I read that it passed, I felt slightly more optimistic for us,” said Dillon.
Next Steps member Rebecca Gold said she was convinced that a new school would last 50 years, while a renovation might only last half that long and would be far more difficult to explain to taxpayers.
“One reason I’m leaning toward new is … the renovation story is so much more complicated to the community, to the people,” Gold said. “We will get a building that lasts a lot longer.”
But the cost of any project will almost certainly be considerably more expensive than those proposed in 2013 and 2014. Next Steps member and Great Barrington selectman Dan Bailly cited rough estimates provided by Berkshire Hills business administrator Sharon Harrison.
Harrison said an addition and renovation could cost anywhere between $69 million and $96 million, while a new school could cost up to $100 million. If the MSBA were to fund 41 percent of the project, as it would have done last time, the cost to taxpayers on a new school could be as high as $60 million.
Next Steps co-chair and school committee member Bill Fields of Great Barrington said a repair-only option, which was not even on the table, would have cost at least $51 million and would not be eligible for any state aid.
“It’s an uphill battle no matter which one we choose,” said Next Steps and school committee member Molly Thomas of West Stockbridge, echoing the sentiments of just about everyone in the room.
“No matter what we do, it’s going to be costly and scary to some people,” added Gibbons.
In December, the MSBA informed Berkshire Hills it would not be considered for funding in the current cycle. Click here to read the letter, which invited the district to resubmit a statement of interest later this year. SOIs in the next cycle are due Friday, April 12. Dillon said he expects the district to send another SOI very soon.
Dillon has said he imagines the MSBA will respond by December and that he expects the reaction from the authority to be much more positive, given the growth of the school’s CVTE program, which recently received three important grants.
Dillon is also optimistic that circumstances have changed since 2014. If, for example, Berkshire Hills could increase the number of towns that are formally members of the district, it could be leveraged to have a significant effect on the reimbursement rate from the MSBA.
Dillon, who is also the part-time superintendent for the Shaker Mountain School Union, said there is the possibility that Richmond, which is a member of Shaker Mountain, might be interested in joining Berkshire Hills. Adding another town to the district could add 6 percentage points, or perhaps another $4 million to $5 million in MSBA aid for a Monument building project.
In 2005, Berkshire Hills constructed new regional elementary and middle schools adjacent to Monument. But in order to build Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School and Monument Valley Regional Middle School, the district had to issue bonds to complete the $29 million project.
Those bonds are scheduled to be paid off in 2023. So if the debt for the two schools is retired at about the same time that the new debt is assumed for the Monument project, it would blunt the effect of the tax increases necessary to finance it.
Furthermore, until recently, the three member towns of Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge were billed by the district for the capital and operational sides of the budget largely according to how many students each town sends to district schools.
This formula upset many Great Barrington taxpayers because the town bore the brunt of tax increases because of its larger population. It is widely viewed as a major reason why the two Monument projects were defeated in the town, even as they passed overwhelmingly in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.
But in 2016 a proposal from the Regional Agreement Amendment Committee, a panel appointed by the School Committee to examine regional issues in the wake of the two failed Monument capital projects, it was recommended that the capital portion of the budget be funded by an equalized property tax rate—much as individual towns tax their residents to pay for roads and other town services. That measure subsequently passed in all three towns.
Though no formal vote was taken Tuesday night, Next Steps members were divided 8–6 in favor of a new school. Gold, James Santos, Jason St. Peter, Thomas, Fields, Gibbons, Dillon and Carl Bradford supported the concept of a new school, even though they acknowledged its higher price tag would make it a tougher sell to the public.
Meanwhile, Roger Kavanagh, Diane Singer, Shapiro, Bailly, Monument Principal Doug Wine, and Berkshire Hills director of operations Steve Soule favored the renovation/addition option.
Dillon said that in advance of the panel’s Tuesday, April 23, meeting, he will go back through his notes, and “pull out … probably 20 things everyone agrees on.” The panel can then “write a motion that addresses that and then move forward.” Next Steps is slated to present its recommendation to the school committee on Thursday, May 2.