Berkshire Hills sets vote on scaled back high school project


GREAT BARRINGTON -- The Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee again will ask voters to approve a high school renovation project -- one with a "significant" reduction in the tax burden, school officials say.

After about 80 minutes of discussion, the committee voted unanimously on Thursday to pursue the amended version of the Monument Mountain Regional High School. The vote was set tentatively set for Nov. 4 -- which is the date of the state and national elections this year.

Voters in Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge will once again have a say in the proposed renovation of Monument Mountain Regional High School.

The proposal calls for new science laboratories, a greenhouse and modifications aimed at enhancing school security and bringing the building up to state and federal building codes.

The original plan, which carried a $55.6 million price tag, narrowly passed in the district's three member towns. But Great Barrington voters turned down the funding mechanism for the project, effectively scrapping it.

District Superintendent Peter Dillon explained to the committee and a crowd of about 40 residents and school officials that the new project will be scaled back to $51.2 million. The reimbursement by the state to the district will remain at 48 percent, or $24.3 million.

He said that the reconfigured plan will mean more savings to taxpayers for several reasons: The lower overall cost and because of the way the plan will be financed.

He said the terms of the bond financing the district's share of the project will be extended from 20 to 25 years, which would lower the annual "hit" to taxpayers.

Beyond that, he said, the district has taken out a number of aspects of the program that would not have been reimbursed by the state School Building Authority.

These include the reduction of site costs, including the proposed upgrading of the drop-off loop and curbing; reductions in upgrades to windows in the building; simplification of the HVAC system; elimination of a new track seating area; reduction in the contingency fund and using portable classrooms to speed up the construction timeline.

The latter option, said Dillon, would reduce the timeline from four years to three.

These project amendments, said Dillon, would significantly reduce the impact to taxpayers.

For example, the impact to the taxpayer of the original project was an average of $422 to $458 annually to Great Barrington; $195 to $215 annually to Stockbridge and $376 to $406 to West Stockbridge annually.

The amended plan, he said meant an average hit to Great Barrington taxpayers of $321 to $338, a drop of 26 percent; $140 to $147 annually, a drop of 30 percent in Stockbridge and $316 to $332 annually in West Stockbridge, a drop of 18 percent.

The numerical fluctuations in each estimate are dependent in large part of the interest rates at the time the bond is secured, he said.

"But in each case, this is a pretty significant reduction," said Dillon.

The School Committee based its vote on the point that it was better to return the plan to the district voters rather than have the School Committee make the decision.

"I think that's the Democratic way," said School Committee Chairman Stephen Bannon.

If the committee voted to drop the project, it would likely have to bring another renovation project to voters in six or seven years -- with construction costs and interest rates up and, potentially, state reimbursement rates down.

"There is no zero-sum option," said committee member Richard Dohoney. "Whether we do it now or come back in seven years, we have to do this."

A majority of the committee also believed that the lower cost was a significant point. Bannon and Dohoney, in addition, both vowed that they would not attempt to bring the project before voters again if this plan failed.

"I don't think I can afford this," said Committee member Christine Shelton of Great Barrington. "I don't think I'll be able to make it work. But we have to let the voters decide. It's the right thing to do."

To reach Derek Gentile:,
or (413) 496-6251.
On Twitter: @DerekGentile


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