Stockbridge —To sign on for state aid or go it alone? To renovate or build from the ground up and demolish? How to market the project so that it stands a better chance of passing muster with taxpayers?
These are some of the questions a newly formed subcommittee, dubbed Monument Next Steps, is attempting to address as the Berkshire Hills Regional School District grapples with what to do about the aging Monument Mountain Regional High School.
The panel held its first meeting June 6 at the district offices in Stockbridge and answered few, if any, of those specific questions. But there was clarity around some issues and a promise to dig deeper to find answers on others.
And above all, there appeared to be a clear consensus that a new proposal to modernize the school should be put forward and that doing nothing was an unsustainable option.
“There are a range potential paths you could take,” said Superintendent Peter Dillon. “We need a very high level of conversation around possibilities. And then, lots of context.”
See video below of Monument Next Steps discussing what to do about the high school at its June 6, 2018 meeting:
The committee, which is still looking to add members, was formed last fall by the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee in an attempt to make a recommendation to the full BHRSD School Committee about what to do with the 50-year-old high school. And the Monument Next Steps subcommittee was born. In April the school committee voted to direct Dillon to draft a statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which helps school districts fund capital projects.
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 much of the costs.
One of the major topics of conversation last week was whether to attempt to get MSBA funding this time around or simply go it alone and fund the high school project through its residents and the taxes they pay.
Next Steps member Bill Fields, who also represents Great Barrington on the school committee, had earlier this year voted against sending the statement of interest to the MSBA precisely because he thinks there would be too many strings attached and he’s convinced those strings were factors in the two defeats the first time around.
“I knew people that voted against the project because, as Great Barrington found out, when you accept money from the state, there’s certain things you’ve got to do and they’re very unrealistic,” Fields said.
As examples he cited the requirement that state-funded schools be able to withstand 150-mile-per-hour winds and the requirement of a certain number of square feet per student.
Dillon added that, under MSBA funding, there were extensive — and expensive — fire suppression requirements, even though there has not been a major school fire resulting in death or serious injury in 60 years or so.
Indeed, when it approves a grant request through its Core Program, the MSBA typically requires that school districts adhere to its building and design standards and it insists that a school district’s contractors be certified by the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAM) and also pay prevailing wage.
Few local contractors have DCAM certification, which makes those projects less popular politically and less likely to have a positive impact on the local economy. All those factors can add considerably to the expense of the project, leading some to wonder whether the state aid is worth the added expense.
Dillon recalled that in advance of the first failed proposal for Monument in 2013, Katherine Craven, who then headed the MSBA, walked the school with district officials and state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli and then-Sen. Benjamin Downing. Craven saw a school in need.
Dillon is convinced that tour helped put Monument higher on the MSBA’s priority list. But after the slimmed-down proposal also failed the next year, Dillon suspects the authority’s enthusiasm has ebbed. On the other hand, Dillon said the MSBA “moves forward” with about 20 percent of the applications it receives.
“They want to support projects that objectively have a high need,” Dillon explained. “We’re the only unrenovated high school in Berkshire County. Every other one that has been built has been renovated except us.”
Taconic High School in Pittsfield and Mount Greylock Regional High School were among the last two that were largely unrenovated. Ground was broken for a new $120-million Taconic High School in 2016 and a $64-million addition/renovation for Mount Greylock is expected to be completed in time for the opening of school in September. A major project is also under consideration for Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton.
“If I were making a priority list, I would put the unrenovated one at the top of it,” Dillon said of the MSBA and Monument.
“Then I’d make another column of ‘what’s the likelihood of a vote passing?’ Maybe we’re somewhere in the middle there. Combine those two and we’re in the top quarter. But to get [MSBA] support, we might need to be in the top 20 percent, so what do we need to do to move some stuff forward so we are more likely to get support of the voters?”
Most panelists agreed that the effort needs a fresh start and so were somewhat lukewarm to the idea of bringing back school building consultant Jon Winokur, who guided the district through the first two unsuccessful attempts.
Dillon said Steve Bannon, who chairs the school committee, agreed that the district did not do a great job selling the project to taxpayers, especially in tax-weary Great Barrington, where a series of expensive capital projects have conspired to set the town back.
Since 2005, the town of Great Barrington has had to pay for several costly public works projects, including its share of the $29 million construction of new regional elementary and middle schools, a new $9.1 million firehouse, a $4.1 million expansion to the Mason Library, a new $1.1 million state-of-the-art tower ladder fire truck and, most recently, more than $1 million towards the design and engineering of the Main Street reconstruction project.
And of course, there was a recent state-mandated $33-million upgrade to the wastewater treatment system. That overhaul was paid for by customers of the sewer system.
Dillon said there are a variety of ways to control costs. To some, it sounds counterintuitive, but he said constructing a new high school is actually less expensive than renovating and adding to the new building.
If you renovate an existing building, then large portions of it are unusable during construction. That means you have to rent trailers for temporary classrooms and parts of the building have to be sealed off. Still, during construction, workers must be hired to come in several nights a week to wipe down the dust. And construction costs are lower for a new building because the project can be completed more quickly.
“In a new building, when its done, its done, and you trade spaces, so the length of construction could be so much shorter that it saves hundreds of thousands if not small millions of dollars,” Dillon said.
Another way in which the impact on taxpayers could be softened is in the timing. In 2005, Berkshire Hills constructed regional elementary and middle schools near Monument Mountain Regional High School on Route 7. But in order to build Muddy Brook 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 three or four years, Dillon said.
So if the debt for the two schools is retired at about the same time that new debt is assumed for the Monument project, it would soften the blow on taxpayers.
“If we can swap new debt for old debt and it’s seamless, the impact on the pocketbook, I don’t think, will be that dramatic,” Dillon said. “If our process takes seven years and we try to start new debt again, people might go nuts, so I’d like to time it if it’s at all possible.”
In addition, last year voters in all three member towns passed a measure that changes the way towns are taxed to pay for capital projects from a per student assessment to an equalized assessment equivalent to a universal tax rate between all three towns. That action removed a sticking point that had been cited by observers as a factor for the previous defeats in Great Barrington, where many taxpayers believe they are paying more than their fair share to the district.
Then there is the matter of how large a school to envision. The in-district enrollments in Berkshire Hills have been declining, though the deficit has been backfilled with tuition and choice students. Still, there is lots of talk about consolidation or possible mergers with other districts such as Lee and Southern Berkshire in Sheffield.
Former school committee member Rich Bradway noted that since the MSBA has per-student requirements for square footage, it introduces an element of uncertainty.
If Lee and Southern Berkshire are included, “that’s a considerably different project,” Bradway said.
Bannon said he has spoken with officials in Lee and Southern Berkshire and he did not think consolidation would ever be approved by voters there “if there wasn’t still a high school in Berkshire Hills.” The Berkshire Hills school committee should take a position on that, he added.
At any rate, Monument Next Steps agreed to meet again on June 19 at 6 p.m. in Stockbridge.