Great Barrington Selectboard candidates: Karen Christensen

“Astute business people first focus on creating revenue. Cutting expenses should be secondary.”

Karen Christensen’s mother used to say that it is the “busy people” who get things done because they know how to manage their time efficiently.

Karen Christensen at the April 28 candidates' forum at the senior center.
Karen Christensen at the April 28 candidates’ forum at the senior center.

Christensen is one of those busy people, she said at last Tuesday’s (April 27) Candidate’s Forum at the Claire Teague Senior Center, hosted by Eileen Mooney’s NEWSletter and the Town Democratic Committee. From Great Barrington, where she has lived since 1992, she runs a small global publishing company, Berkshire Publishing Group, where she has to constantly “build teams and consensus,” she said. She is an activist — most notably as the founder of The Berkshire Train Campaign, and more recently, for her tenacity about school district issues around the Monument Mountain Regional High School renovation proposal. She is also co-founder of GB21, a group of several residents who want to galvanize a number of changes in the school district, mostly around economic issues.

Christensen said that it was events surrounding the renovation campaign that drove her to put her name on the ballot. Her grown son, she said, had returned from a community meeting about the renovation, where someone had said, “if people can’t afford it, then they’ll just have to move.”

Born in Indiana, and having lived in Silicon Valley and London, Christensen was involved in politics in the U.K. as well as in the Berkshires, she said. She sat on the Berkshire Hills school committee, and has noted publicly that it was not a harmonious time; she was against building Muddy Brook Elementary and Monument Valley Middle schools because she thought young children should be educated in town, in the smaller schools. An “irony,” she said, since she is now a proponent of consolidation of Monument High with other neighboring schools.

Christensen has faced criticism over her focus on the school district. School officials say that the work to make the changes she requests are already in process, and that they, too, are frustrated about the inherent roadblocks; Stockbridge and West Stockbridge have to play ball, for instance, for any change in the district’s organization. The state has its rules and mandates, and the school administration must attempt sea changes that will take time and political savvy. Christensen said she is not going “to let go of this one,” and agreed it was a “challenge.” She says she wants changes that will bring the town to a “yes vote.”

“Stockbridge and West Stockbridge are losing out, because we want to see something done about [renovating] Monument Mountain. But if Great Barrington voters continue to feel that it is not fair, what we can do is keep voting no.”

“They’re our neighbors and we need to be talking,” she added, referring to the school district’s regional agreement between the towns. Great Barrington shoulders the bulk of paying for the school budget in a per pupil assessment formula.

The town’s Republican Committee said they supported her bid because of her work helping to defeat the high school renovation, and characterized her in another newspaper as a “Reagan Democrat.”

But for all her interest in school issues, Christensen, who has also been an environmentalist, says her passion is economic development that is sustainable and involves technology. She thinks well of the town’s Master Plan, a document that is a reference for the town’s vision, but says it “needs to be executed.”

Later, she told The Edge that there is always a danger that great ideas and work will not integrate, and that the Selectboard’s job is “to overcome the challenge of the silo.” She said that the same also applies to the strategy for Monument High. She said the idea was not to start from scratch, but to coordinate information and strategy. “I want to reassure people that their planning was not wasted, but needs to be brought together.”

What does she think of Finance Committee member Michael Wise’s property tax reform ideas? Wise’s analysis shows that a residential exemption combined with a split-tax would cut property taxes for 80 percent of residents by progressively shifting the tax burden on to those with homes assessed over around $470,000, and more moderately onto businesses. She’s willing to consider them as “on the table,” as part of a larger “holistic strategic approach,” she said at the forum. She also said that Great Barrington is a “patient” on an “unsustainable course of increasing taxes,” and that Wise’s proposal may be akin to “rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.”

She said she hadn’t yet decided what she thinks of the town’s adoption in 2012 of the Community Preservation Act (CPA), but said it was a good tool for economic development as long as the projects were integrated with the town’s strategic vision so that there isn’t “wasted work or wasted energy.”

“We really want bang for our buck,” she said.

Not all development is good development, Christensen said. Of affordable housing, for instance, she said, “people aren’t moving here because homes are cheap — they will move here if there are jobs…most young people need jobs.” And not any old job will do; she says more service jobs are not what’s needed. When asked about the possibility of boutique hotel filling the old Searles High School, she said, “I don’t want us to be a resort of people servicing visitors to the area. I want people who live here to be the central people.”

She said she’d like to see a healthy ecosystem of “complementary” businesses. “Where is an employee’s partner going to work?” when they move here, she wondered. She said she thought companies that provide jobs, like Iredale Mineral Cosmetics, are great, “but what if they leave?”

Along with high-speed Internet, another solution for economic development, Christensen says, is to bring the passenger rail service — stopped in 1972– to and from Manhattan back to the area as an economic booster, to reduce traffic, and to attract new visitors and businesses, according to The Berkshire Train Campaign’s website.

Economic development is key, she says. “Astute business people first focus on creating revenue. Cutting expenses should be secondary.”