Sunday October 14, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- A proposed $54 million renovation and expansion of Monument Mountain Regional High School is being rolled out to voters in the three-town Berkshire Hills Regional School District. A campaign to win public support opens at an informational session on Tuesday.

If the state approves the project, it would cover 48 percent of the cost, leaving taxpayers in Great Barr ington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge to cover payments on a long-term loan at historically low interest rates.

Already under preliminary review by the state’s School Building Authority and approved by the district’s School Committee, voters will hear details of the plan from School Superintendent Peter Dillon and other officials during a public meeting Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in the high school cafeteria.

As explained by Dillon, the project would have a triple impact -- expanded space and facilities for science, tech and vocational programs, compliance with state educational requirements, and satisfaction of building code regulations.

The goal, Dillon stated in an interview on Thursday, is to bring the project before voters next spring either at annual town meetings in the three communities or as a ballot question at the annual elections.

By that time, assuming the state approves the project, details would be available on the extent of higher property taxes affecting residents in the three towns. Based on its student enrollment, Great Barrington would pay 68 percent of the $27 million cost to be borne by the school district.


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"The high school is doing really good work, much of it in spite of the building," Dillon asserted, citing the 95 percent graduation rate, among the highest in the state. "We want to build on that success and turn things around so the building is supporting the work."

He emphasized the new science classrooms and labs, facilities for vocational education, and for state-funded training programs in agriculture and automotive technology. "We want students to have adequate facilities and access to sophisticated equipment," said Dillon.

The building, dating from 1968, lacks modern insulation, has single-pane glass windows, is burdened by old furnaces and boilers, lacks sprinkler systems and security systems to control access, and has too many entrances, Dillon stated. "We want to put safety first," he said.

He explained that the School Building Committee examined three options -- doing nothing was ruled out as problematic because "at some point things are just going to stop working." A new building was deemed "not particularly cost efficient," Dillon added.

In some less-affluent communities, he acknowledged, the state pays a higher percentage of school project costs. The formula is based on the number of students who are on free or reduced-cost lunch programs.

Dillon agreed that the project may be a hard sell to residents already concerned by high taxes, especially in Great Barrington where the average property carries an annual bill approaching $5,000.

"We’re really sensitive to that," he said. "It’s going to take some time to make a really compelling argument. We’ll have to get more specific numbers on the costs."

"Great Barrington is challenged because this isn’t the only thing going on," Dillon added, citing the upcoming, controversial downtown re construction project.

But, he stressed, "with interest rates at historic lows, it’s a really good time to invest in kids and in the community’s future because the money will go far."

As Dillon put it, "Schools go as communities go. When you invest in schools, it makes the community more attractive."

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.