By John Sakata,Berkshire Eagle Staff Story Body:

By John Sakata,Berkshire Eagle Staff

GREAT BARRINGTON -- The Berkshire Hills Regional School District hosted four community forums to find out why a $56 million Monument Mountain Regional High School renovation vote failed in November.

The message from Great Barrington citizens was the same: Anger about the project cost, community distrust about why the renovation was needed, and frustration about previously passed expensive projects that are on the tax rolls.

"The overwhelming concern from the Great Barrington forum is that it cost too much money. Period. End of discussion," said forum moderator Karen Smith, who made a presentation of the results of the forums to the School Committee on Thursday.

In a district-wide referendum on the project Nov. 5, a six-vote majority in the three towns of the district -- Stockbridge, West Stockbridge, and Great Barrington -- narrowly approved the $56 million high school renovation. But the project vote and funding failed by more than a two-to-one margin in Great Barrington, whose residents would face the highest tax burden because the town sends the largest share of students to district schools. All three towns needed to approve funding for the project for it to go forward.

Now that the forums are complete, district officials will go to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which has offered a $25million project subsidy, and ask whether the scope and cost of the project can be scaled back -- which it sees as critical for the projectbeing approved by the voters.


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State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli and State Sen. Benjamin Downing were expected to meet with the MSBA on what options the district has on passing the project. Pignatelli told The Eagle on Friday the MSBA meeting was canceled due to a snowstorm and a follow-up meeting hasn’t been scheduled.

BHRSD School Committee Chair Stephen Bannon said the project can’t be modified until the district hears back from the MSBA.

"We need to approach the MSBA for clarity now that the forums are over and we need to do that sooner rather than later with the approaching deadline," Bannon said.

Facing a July 31 deadline to pass the project or lose the state subsidy, Smith outlined why the project failed, and identified a plan to build support for the project, which took seven years to plan. Smith was appointed by the School Committee to moderate the series of community forums held from Jan. 22 through Feb. 3.

On Thursday, School Committee members agreed to wait until its next meeting on Thursday, Feb. 13 before discussing the next step although some progress on Smith’s recommedations has already been made.

The School Committee did vote to hold a future forum to explain rates paid by students that are choiced or tuitioned into the district, one of Smith’s recommendations. Opponents of the high school project have said rates should be increased for these students.

During the forums, Smith said she spent a "considerable amount of time" correcting incorrect information, while also hearing about very real community concerns.

"[Some said] ‘I don’t need to hear anything about the project, it costs too much,’ " Smith said. "I think that’s a hole we need to deal with."

Smith said she had a list of five pages of likes, dislikes and concerns. The concerns expanded beyond the high school and included frustration about town-meeting approved projects like the new firehouse and the Community Preservation Act tax.

"[The high school renovation project] was also a lightning rod for stuff that had nothing to do with the school property," Smith said. "Absolutely nothing. It was issues in Great Barrington that people are angry about."

Smith identified an eight-point plan to build support, saying "cost reduction is paramount." She recommended bringing on three to four community members from the construction field to help identify costs that would lower the overall project cost.

Smith also made a series of other suggestions, including talking to Southern Berkshire Regional School District leaders about consolidation. Bannon revealed that the district leaders have talked to the Farmington River Regional School District about consolidation, a conversation that hasn’t gotten far.

BHRSD has reached out to SBRSD for a meeting concerning consolidation. District leaders will also send invitations to the Lenox Regional School District and Lee Public Schools. Consolidation efforts could include sharing teachers and business operations, as well as working together in purschasing items.

SBRSD Superintendent David Hastings on Friday said he has received an e-mail, and he would be willing to meet in late February.

Hastings said it’s been "seven to 10 years" since conversations have taken place about consolidation.

"I don’t know where this initial conversation will go," said Hastings, who spoke positively about the district’s working to support one another.

To reach John Sakata:
jsakata@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6240.
On Twitter: @jsakata