To the Editor:
After a great deal of thought, I support a “No Vote” on the proposed MMRHS renovation. We should, instead, repair the school at this juncture. Strategic resource planning and belt-tightening is needed.
First, incredible teaching is the center of our excellence. The overbuilding of “brick and mortar” facilities with the associated costs detracts from the essential mission.
Second, MMRHS would add to the inventory of over-sized schools since this renovation project is tantamount to building new. The 30 percent student growth embedded in the projections conflicts with those from Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and the State. They report BHRSD having declined by 12 percent in the past 12 years and is expected to fall further by 23 percent. The county is contracting at an even higher rates.
Third, the project is strategically premature since programmatic and facilities duplication has not been addressed. This results in higher capital and annual operating costs than necessary.
Besides consolidating district management, the Southern Berkshire Shared Services (SBBS) project should yield savings through impending cooperative efforts. These include consolidation of technology and specialized facilities and programs, such as automotive, culinary programs, etc. SBBS is still at its early stage. We should not prematurely commit to front-end capital expenditures and heightened operating costs that undercut cooperative incentives with this renovation.
People say that full district consolidation is a decade away, if ever. GB is geographically desirable as a center of one of the, say, three or four imaginary school districts remaining in the county. However, there would be major obstacles. For example, the proposed renovation would be much too small and configured incorrectly. (Lenox, Lee, MMRHS, are each about 300 students for grades 9-12 with Mt. Everett, smaller.) And, our renovation debt, added to the bond for the lower and middle schools which extends for another 10 years, would also be deterrents
We take pride in our excellent school that attracts a student count disproportionate to our population. However, without the attendant financing and legal support, we are putting our townspeople at financial risk. The approval of this proposed plan will only endorse more of the same scenario.
Fourth, on expenses and taxes, the three town BHRSD gross operating budget is now $23.5 million, up 5 percent from the previous year. Of the net school expenses, Great Barrington will pay $12.1 million, the highest annual cost of any town in Berkshire County. Shouldering 70 percent of the total District, GB has only 43 percent of total students. The proposed renovation would increase GB taxes by 6.3 percent. This does not include the impact of the annual operating budgets increases for the School and municipality, the 3 percent CPA surcharge, or the extensive large wastewater and Fire District (water) projects, some of which is not yet reflected in our tax rate.
Regarding the proposed bond, our current 14 year olds will be 39, and the school population will be 23 percent smaller before it is paid off. Will we have made the right decision for them?
Finally, the proposed renovation project is basically the same project voted down last year. The decrease was achieved partly by reducing the contingency (which increases the risk of overruns) and by Great Barrington foregoing $300,000 in permit fees. By rolling our repairs into a larger renovation project, our costs are also much higher because the State requires many more extensive changes than individual repairs would require otherwise. This is the price of a higher reimbursement rate. Large projects also include expensive layers of management and the associated fees, contingencies, and inflation escalators. Further, the project size makes it difficult, if not impossible, for local contractors to bid.
Accelerating such repairs as the boiler and roof should be addressed, instead of committing to this costly renovation project. In the intervening period, we should strategically plan better resource utilization. We should not assume that Great Barrington will continue to expand as a “near-regional” high school without attendant funding. It is not “all or nothing.” It is the School Committee and the three town selectboards who must change the current model and set more realistic, equitable objectives and direction.
Last weekend, I attended the annual conference of the Massachusetts Association of Town Finance Committees with relevant presentations by the MSBA and others on school building construction, reimbursement rates, financial planning and town liabilities due to unfunded and unbudgeted retirement benefits. After exchanging experiences with other towns, my conclusions were reinforced.
If you agree, vote “No” on November 4. You should also let your boards know you want a change in our strategic direction.
The writer is chair of the Great Barrington Finance Committee.