Education at what price?: Great Barrington's challenge: Supporting students and paying for it too


GREAT BARRINGTON -- At the Claire Teague Senior Center, Sue Farnum is one of the many Great Barringtonians who says she opposed a $56 million renovation of Monument Mountain Regional High School last November.

In the same breath, though, the 71-year-old retired nurse says she can be counted on if the district scales down the project and focuses on essentials such as safety, handicap accessibility and technology improvements, because she wants the town's students to compete with the best and brightest.

Farnum, a coupon-clipper and bargain-hunter who lives on a modest income with her husband, says her renovation project vote shouldn't be interpreted as her not wanting to support education.

"I try to be supportive," said Farnum, who adds that paying for the renovation "breaks down to $1 a day, and I am sure I can find it but it still makes life hard."

Farnum's desire to support education on a fixed income will become increasingly noteworthy for school districts because education -- a signficant part of any municipal budget -- is increasingly being supported by seniors and those without children in the school system.

In Berkshire County, 33 percent, or 43,879 residents, are at least 55 years old, according to the 2010 federal census. Nearly three-quarters, or 76.3 percent, of households in Berkshire County reported that they don't have children under 18.

In Great Barrington, the town pays more for education than it does in total operating expenses. The town's fiscal 2014 share to Berkshire Hills Regional School District was $12.05 million compared to the town's operating cost of $10.24 million.

Seniors at the Claire Teague Senior Center don't hesitate to say they support education because they have a vested interest in their neighbors' children; they enjoy the school's theatrical and musical performances and they're rooting for at least some of these students to return home and support their hometown.

However, Great Barrington resident Karen Smith saw firsthand how cash-strapped seniors weren't willing to write a blank check to schools. Smith hosted a series of community forums on the failed Monument Mountain High School renovation vote on behalf of the Berkshire Hills school district.

"They want the biggest bang for their dollar," Smith said.

"They were really clear that they are committed to providing a good strong education to young people of our education," said Monument Mountain Regional High School Principal Marianne Young. "The building project we have proposed is necessary and prohibitive."

Mary Elfers, 79, of Great Barrington, expressed the mixed feelings shared by many others seniors at the Claire Teague Senior Center.

Elfers lives on a fixed income of $1,600 a year, and she was one of multiple people who found their desire to support education tempered by their modest financial income.

"Of course I would support school improvements for these children who need new things," said Elfers. She later added, "When you don't have kids in school anymore, it is hard to swallow."

Frank Cote, Pittsfield Public Schools' assistant superintendent for vocational, workforce and college readiness programs, is on the district's Building Needs Commission, which has been exploring proposals to either replace or renovate Taconic High School. The district could submit a plan to the state by January 2015 on the building, and, if approved, could be turning to the community to finance the project.

Despite an unexpected $200,000 budget cut from the district's heating and fuel account last year, Cote said he rarely hears public complaints from seniors about paying for education. However, he said a priority of Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless, who is in his first year in the position, has been creating greater awareness about what the schools do. This can happen through open houses, marketing campaigns and other avenues.

"You have to show what education does for your community," Cote said. "Everyone lives in their domain around them."


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