Berkshire Hills officials say they'll meet with Great Barrington voters who rejected school override


GREAT BARRINGTON -- Berkshire Hills Regional School officials will meet with voters who turned down a $56 million renovation of the district's high school to see if the project, or parts of it, can be salvaged.

"I'd like to hear what they have to say," School Committee Chairman Stephen Bannon said Friday.

A date hasn't been set for the meeting with Great Barrington voters.

The possibility of another vote on the renovation was kept alive late last week when the Berkshire Hills Regional School District School Committee approved a letter to the Massachusetts School Building Authority requesting time to see if the project could get passed with another vote. The MSBA has set a deadline of Wednesday for the School Committee to submit a plan for what to do next.

Earlier this month at the polls, the high school renovation project received the necessary majority support from the three-town district after Stockbridge and West Stockbridge residents overwhelmingly supported the project. However, Great Barrington voters, who heavily opposed the project, rejected a Proposition 2 1/2 override, which led to the project's defeat.

With the 47-year-old high school in obvious need of repairs and a $25 million renovation subsidy on the table from the MSBA, a majority of the School Committee held out hope that a compromise could be reached with Great Barrington voters. Without Great Barrington's support, the renovation wouldn't go forward, school officials acknowledged.

What exactly would receive the support of Great Barrington voters is still under deliberation.

Community members pressed the School Committee to scale back the project, even if that meant losing some of the state subsidy. They also suggested going for a bare bones approach that would only renovate necessary items, including the roof, plumbing and federally mandated American Disabilities Act requirements. Some community members attributed the failed vote to a lack of communication.

A second chance would be tied to MSBA approval.

Bannon and Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon plan on meeting with individuals who opposed the project for further feedback.

School Committee member Rich Bradway, who spearheads the advocacy campaign for the project, said that when residents were presented the project, it was able to change minds. The project was endorsed by the selectmen and finance committees in the district's three towns following a presentation. The school is important for bringing people back to the community and he warned against a "defeatist" state of mind.

"The school system defines who we are," Bradway said.

If the project planned over the last seven years isn't able to receive the necessary support, Jonathan Winikur, who has served as a liaison between the district and MSBA, said the district could examine an "accelerated repair" plan that would allow reimbursement for individual items, such as a roof or boiler.

Whatever option is explored, School Committee members agree that they'd need as much time as the MSBA could provide to convince Great Barrington to support the project. In the letter to the MSBA, school officials cited tax fatigue and concerns about the project.

"Tax fatigue is tied to previous expensive library and firehouse projects and a future sewer project as well as a state-funded Main Street reconstruction," according to the letter.

"Some of those concerns are valid and some are misperceptions. They include financial considerations, skepticism about the project and its components, a desire for local contractors to be involved, concerns about enrollment and how the District operates in relation to its neighbors."

A continued push for the project didn't receive everyone's support.

School Committee member Frederick Clark said the School Committee should restart the process.

"We did a reasonable job every step of the way, we looked at the needs of the school, we challenged the state every step of the way. [This project is] not what voters wanted," Clark said.


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