School committee endorses Nov. 4 balloting on a downsized school renovation proposalMore Info
Great Barrington – Persuaded that the renovation of Monument Mountain Regional High School would benefit the Berkshire Hills Regional School District both financially and educationally, the School Committee voted unanimously Thursday night (May 22) to place a significantly revised $51 million proposal before district voters on November 4.
Last November, a $56 million rebuilding plan for the 48-year-old high school went down to defeat when voters in Great Barrington rejected, by a 2 to 1 margin, both the renovation itself and the Proposition 21/2 override that was required to fund the project. District-wide, however, voters approved the project by a slim majority.
School committee members are now convinced that the revised proposal that reduces the renovation’s tax impact by 26 percent for Great Barrington residents, 30 percent for Stockbridge residents and 18 percent for taxpayers in West Stockbridge is sufficiently different to earn district endorsement.
The new project proposal is $5 million less than the original plan, primarily by extending the financing term from 20 to 25 years and by accelerating the construction schedule. While the net cost to the district, after state reimbursement, was $30.4 million in the original proposal, the revised plan costs district towns $26.9 million.
The school administration estimates that under the revised proposal the average tax impact will be $321 to $338 in Great Barrington, $140 to $147 in Stockbridge and $316 to $332 in West Stockbridge.
The alternative, according to school officials, is $44 million in basic repairs to the Monument Mountain facility that would bring the school into compliance with state codes and standards but would not provide upgraded science classrooms, a modernized library with ventilation, or expanded vocational education opportunities. And that option, not eligible for the 48 percent reimbursement that the renovation would receive, would cost the three district towns far more in the long run.
Still, despite the reduction in price and scope, the project is likely to face concerted opposition.
“You have to ask ‘what’s the risk’ in taking this proposal to the voters,” noted School Building Subcommittee Chair Richard Coons. “There are attitudes out there. Can you overcome that, even though this is a project that needs to be done?”
“I don’t think we’re shoving this down voters’ throats,” observed School Committee Chairman Steve Bannon, addressing a lightly attended meeting in the cafeteria of the Monument Valley Regional Middle School.
Initially on the fence about whether to return this project for another round of balloting, Bannon pointed out that “the options are more expensive and less effective.”
But Finance Committee member Leigh Davis asked why the committee was reluctant – if not fearful – of placing the project before voters again.
“The school needs help,” she declared. “We are going to have to pay for it somehow, so taxes are going up regardless. Give the voters an opportunity.”
Still, Great Barrington Selectman Dan Bailly protested to the committee that “the project is still a lot of money for people, and we are going to see a lot of people unable to live here.”
But fellow Selectman Deborah Phillips contended voters had not rejected the project because it didn’t need to be done but, rather, because it cost too much.
“From Great Barrington’s point of view, the tuition agreements with neighboring districts doesn’t allow us to share capital costs that benefit their students,” she said. “And the regional agreement between the three towns was written before school choice became an option. We need to look at other ways to fund it because I think it should be done.”
Bannon noted that the district has been seeking ways to increase revenue from tuition students as well as reduce administrative costs but that some solutions, such as combining school districts, are far in the future.
“Regionalization in South Berkshire is perhaps 10 years off,” he said. “It’s sort of like a prom date. We’ve been turned down so often. But we are looking into ways to collaborate with neighboring districts.”
In the meantime, the School Committee reasserted its commitment to rebuilding the high school.
“Personally, I can’t afford the additional taxes this will cost me,” commented committee member Christine Shelton of Great Barrington, “but it is what we need to do for the district.”
Added Deborah Kain, committee member from Great Barrington: “We are doing what’s necessary to take care of our children. We can’t afford not to do it.”