Monument Mountain renovation sales pitch begins again


GREAT BARRINGTON -- Berkshire Hills Regional School officials are aware tax fatigue contributed to the failure of a $56 million renovation of the district's high school in November.

Today, the district will try to understand how deep the discontentment is during the first in a series of community forums, as officials search for a plan that will pass, allowing the district to keep a substantial state subsidy.

The project will need to appease voters like Great Barrington resident Walter "Bud" Atwood III, who voted against the proposal, along with an overwhelming majority in the town.

"It's basically taxes; residents found out how much it would cost them, and how much it would add to their tax burden," said Atwood, a Finance Committee member.

The first of the forums, dubbed "Speak Outs," will take place at 5 p.m. at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington. School officials will be looking for elaboration on what opponents are willing to support and what are their questions and concerns.

In a districtwide referendum on the project Nov. 5, a majority of voters in the three towns of the district -- Stockbridge, West Stockbridge and Great Barrington -- narrowly approved the $56 million high school renovation. But a separate measure to fund the project was defeated in Great Barrington, whose residents would face the highest tax burden because the town sends the largest share of students to the district schools.

The project would receive a $25 million state subsidy that would enable the district to build new science laboratories, a greenhouse and modifications aimed at enhancing school security and bringing the building up to federal and state building code.

School officials are working to scale down the project through a recently appointed Finance Committee -- a balancing act because the Massachusetts School Building Authority has stated in a letter that it must pass the same project proposed to the MSBA to receive funding.

For the project to pass, district officials will be confronted with questions outside of the building's scope. Opponents of the project are saying the district should explore merging with surrounding school districts and that students that choice-in and tuition-in should pay a higher share of the cost. They have also expressed concern about the school's demographics.

Atwood is very familiar with the high school. He taught there from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, then went on to serve on the BHRSD School Committee member for a decade from 1985-95.

Atwood said the district shouldn't build a high school unless it merges with neighboring districts. "I'd support [funding] an addition to the high school when we merge," Atwood said.

Selectman Dan Bailly agreed the high school needs to be renovated, but not at the current scope. He proposes applying for state subsidies that would allow for piecemeal fixes.

"It's too much," Bailly said. "There's a lot of people that feel we need something to be done, but what is proposed is too much. It goes beyond the needs. It puts a heavy burden on the taxpayers, especially the older people who are retired."

School officials have previously said keeping the building up to code would cost the district $40.2 million, with the opportunity for a 25 percent reimbursement.

Great Barrington homeowners would pay an additional $109 to $118 per $100,000 of property valuation. For the average home price of $387,756, the tax increase would be between $425 and $460.

In comparison, Stockbridge would face an assessment of $39 to $43 per $100,000 of assessed value. In West Stockbridge, the residents would pay an additional $88 to $95 per $100,000 of valuation.

Beyond a significant reduction in cost, Bailly said he would vote no. He's advocating for an approach that would seek state reimbursement for problems as they come.

"I don't think anything right now would change my mind from what I hear," he said.

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


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