Uncertainty over consolidation clouds planning for a new Monument High School

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By Sunday, Jun 10 News  9 Comments
Aerial view of Monument Mountain Regional High School campus in the center of this image, with Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School and Monument Valley Regional Middle School behind it.

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.

School Committee member Bill Fields. Behind him is School Committee Chairman Steve Bannon. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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.

Great Barrington Selectboard member Dan Bailly. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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?”

Next Steps members Jason St. Peter, also a school committee member from Stockbridge, Sarah Culmer of West Stockbridge and Kristin Piasecki, a school committee from West Stockbridge. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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.

Monument Mountain Regional high School.

“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.


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9 Comments   Add Comment

  1. John says:

    Monument mountain is a fine school. Put the kids and teachers to work fixing up a few things. In fact there should be fix it week during one of the numerous vacations
    . Oh wait… the liberal “educators” got rid of the trades…

    1. Ed Abrahams says:

      You aren’t seriously suggesting that students repair the roof or install a new boiler, upgrade science labs that were designed in the Johnson administration, and change all the doors and windows to provide a minimum of acceptable energy efficiency and security? It isn’t legal, it isn’t practical, and it wouldn’t address many of the other problems facing the 50-year old building.

      And since when is “the trades” a liberal vs. conservative decision?

      I’m not sure who you are, anonymous John, but I know you weren’t at this meeting to make those suggestions. I know that because there were only two people in the room other than committee members and press.

      This time, please don’t sit on the sidelines and wait for a final proposal to shoot down. The process is beginning. The decisions will be made by the people in the room. NOW is the time to get involved. Show up and make some actual and realistic suggestions that can be used. And be prepared to find out the very real obstacles to “common sense” suggestions such as the ones you made above.

    2. Bob says:

      John – you might want to check your facts. Actually you can re-read your own comment on this article.
      https://theberkshireedge.com/vocational-education-making-a-comeback-carpentry-in-the-classroom/

      1. Carl Stewart says:

        Bob—

        It seems that John didn’t think he’d encounter someone like you who was clever enough to uncover his inconsistency. (Perhaps “inconsistency” is too gentle a word to describe John’s weak attempt to make a political point.)

  2. Richard Lacatell says:

    Kudos and sympathy for once again addressing Monument capital needs. Questionable facts such as “We’re the only unrenovated high school in Berkshire County. Every other one that has been built has been renovated except us,” allusions to bypassing prevailing wage (unlikely, and would Berkshire Hills really want to do that), and complaints about MSBA requirements indicate Monument Next Steps has a long way to go over a well worn path.

    The committee should reread Jake McCandless’ statement about the inevitability of consolidation. Envision the high school your students would be attending under the various alternatives, including consolidation.

  3. Carl Stewart says:

    Who knows where to start commenting on this article? There is enough misleading information and half-truth to write pages, but just a few thoughts follow:

    1. Having the MSBA involved in the renovation makes so much sense that it appears that the opposition by Berkshire Hills administrators to it is based on their embarrassment at the 2 earlier failures and not much else. At Southern Berkshire, we had a seemless relationship with the MSBA during the run up to and completion of the new roof and boiler system at the Mt. Everett/Undermountain School in Sheffield. They (the MSBA team) were both easy to
    work with and an excellent complement to those on the District’s staff involved in the project.

    2. I suspect that a fair amount of taxpayer exhaustion and disgust in Great Barrington can be referred back to the Town’s several
    less-than-brilliant expenditures in recent years. As just one example, the Main Street project was obviously intended to continue the transformation of a lovely, small New England town to a tourist destination. Any town of 7,000 that has half a dozen realty offices in a several block area of downtown is obviously not primarily serving the local, year-round community.

    3. No serious mention is made of the ongoing efforts at some form of school consolidation/merger/cooperation among the school districts in South County. The reality is that regardless of tuition and school choice, the student population is decreasing and will, according to respected sources, continue to decrease. There are currently 4 high school buildings in South County with a total student population of a little more than 1,000 students. Housed in just 1 building, this would not be considered a large school. Mr. Bannon opines that the towns would never approve merger or consolidation. Steve, would you lend me your crystal ball for the horse racing next weekend here in Dunmanway?

    4. Finally, we all need to recognize that there is no better use of local (and State and Federal) money than in support of public education. Taxpayer resistance to spending money on educating young people is both short-sighted and, in some cases, mean-spirited. If the Berkshires are to be a vital, humanistic community serving all of its citizens rather than only the wizened demographic that frequents Tanglewood, Jacobs Pillow, the WTF, and the surfeit of overpriced mediocre restaurants (with some notable exceptions) that line the streets of our towns, we need to understand and accept that quality education is a top
    priority and not an afterthought

  4. Stephen Cohen says:

    Carl’s third point about real consideration of the consolidation of the districts and schools should be required reading for everyone. We are losing school population quickly, with no end in sight. To spend tens of millions of dollars on underutilized physical buildings does not make any sense financially or educationally. Sure, there will be lots of issues, from transportation to staffing, but these can be confronted and overcome with a commensurate reduction or stabilization of taxes and increased efficiency in education. We have been talking about this problem for years, it is time to act before our tax rate destroys the populations of our town, and our children become pawns to an edifice complex which, alone, does nothing to better their education. I would rather pay enhanced salaries for teachers and for more diverse courses than pay for the upkeep of under utilized buildings. It is truly time for action.

    1. Carol J McGlinchey says:

      Thanks for your comments, Stephen. The elephant in the room that is being ignored is that the MOST sensible plan is to consolidate and tear down MMRHS. Since it is the only high school that is not renovated and the population is declining, it makes no sense to renovate or build a new high school for our district only. Sending high school students from the three towns of the BHRSD to Lee, Lenox or Sheffield would be a win-win all around. Those high schools would be fully utilized, each with their own strengths re academic/sports/tech/arts and other programs that would give our students good choice in options. Furthermore, the land at MMRHS would make a wonderful outdoor sports complex for the three town district and could include more community gardens, a dog park, and more. The sports fields are already there. Steve Bannon has commented that “nothing is off the table.” Let’s put this on the table with serious intent and initiative. This is something the tax weary year round residents of Great Barrington could get behind.

  5. Steve Farina says:

    We have two relatively new school buildings in town, and a declining student population. Why not just consolidate in place. Move the 7th graders to the elementary building, and 8-12 into the middle school building. Most Juniors and seniors are not in the building for more than 4 hours a day, anyway. The buildings could all be fully utilized, staffing overhead reduced and no additional transportation issues. This might even lead to a property tax reduction.
    The high school building could then either be torn down and utilized as mentioned above for a sports complex, or maybe partially renovated for sports, and arts complex, maybe even move the district offices into it.
    Meanwhile as technology is embraced over the next few years, the requirements for the physical buildings could be adapted more readily.

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