State building agency rejects Monument High funding plan, setting it back at least one year

Monument Mountain Regional High School, built in 1968, is plagued by problems including a leaky roof, balky heating and cooling systems and dated science labs.

State building agency rejects Monument High funding plan, setting it back at least one year

{child_byline}By Heather Bellow , The Berkshire Eagle{/child_byline}

GREAT BARRINGTON — Plans for a new or renovated Monument Mountain Regional High School will have to wait for at least a year.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority has rejected a request by Berkshire Hills Regional School District to place the deteriorating school on the list of eligible projects in its current cycle of grant making.

In a Dec. 11 letter to Superintendent Peter Dillon, the agency said it had to review 61 statements of interest (SOI) from 51 different school districts for consideration. Eleven schools were chosen, according to information on the MSBA’s website. One is Greylock Elementary School in North Adams.

“The MSBA identified the school facilities that have the greatest and most urgent need based on an assessment of the entire cohort of SOIs that are received,” the letter said.

School officials and community volunteers have been working for more than a decade to find a way to renovate or rebuild the school, constructed in 1968, which is plagued by problems including a leaky roof, balky heating and cooling systems and dated science labs.

The district had hoped to gain entry into the state grant program, which typically covers a significant portion of public school projects. In a $51 million project approved by the state, but rejected by taxpayers in 2014, the state would have paid $23.2 million, or just over 45 percent.

Dillon said Tuesday that he thought the district had presented a “compelling need and a good argument” for inclusion on the list given Monument’s failing and dated infrastructure in an education world that is rapidly changing.

“The real issue is that there are a number of needy schools and districts in similar situations, and there’s only so much money,” he said, noting that there is no way to appeal this, but that the district can reenter the next eligibility window, which runs through April 8.

Matt Donovan, the MSBA’s director of administration and operation, told The Eagle that the agency is inundated with anywhere between 140 and 160 applications every year for school buildings. He pointed out that in this latest round, 50 did not make the cut.

“We do the best with what we have, and realize there is a tremendous need,” Donovan said, noting that the agency has approximately 315 projects currently in the pipeline. “It’s a competitive grant program, not an entitlement program, and we try to disburse to the most eligible and needy.”

The long struggle

The school was previously accepted — twice — into the MSBA’s funding queue, and a full plan brought to voters of the district’s three towns, Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.

And twice, Great Barrington voters shot down the plans, mostly citing impending property tax hikes for its residents, who bear about half of the district’s total costs since 70 percent of its students attend district schools. The rural district faces a number of fiscal challenges, including burgeoning budgets, reductions in state aid and insurance and other uncontrollable cost hikes.

The most recent rejection led to a deal between the three towns that would ease future capital costs for Great Barrington. And it gave birth to Next Steps, a 10-person volunteer committee that in 2018 began to dig deep into what it would take to upgrade the school to match a refreshed educational vision. Next Steps concluded that school required action — and soon. It found that an inventory of repair costs stacks up to $51 million — the price tag for a total renovation back in 2014.

Based on earlier estimates, Next Steps said that calculating for inflation through 2023, renovation/addition would likely range between $70 million to $96 million, while a new school wouldn’t be that much more, at a range of $79 million to $100 million. The district also estimates that the state might have kicked in $23 million to $31 million for a new school in this cycle.

Next Steps embarked on an outreach blitz last year in an effort to sell the plan to voters, who seemed more receptive to the idea, especially considering the district is four years from paying off debt from the construction of its elementary and middle schools.

‘It hurts’

Bill Fields, a former Monument social studies teacher and Next Steps co-chairman, expressed frustration with the MSBA’s decision.

“We lose a full year ... it hurts,” he said. “The building is an obstacle in where the district is going in both academic and vocational education.”

He said that while the state pushes “more educational opportunity and more equity — we can’t do it because of the building.”

But schools are expensive. And just as rural districts are leaning harder on town coffers, the MSBA is stretched.

Donovan said the agency is funded through a 1 percent cut of the state sales tax, and leverages over $1 billion in construction every year.

But it’s still not enough — despite the Legislature raising the agency’s annual cap last year from $602 million to $800 million.

Donovan said the agency is still paying down $10.2 billion it inherited from the School Building Assistance Program, from which it morphed into its current form in 2004.

Dillon said a last-ditch effort, should applications to the MSBA never pan out, could be to renovate in a “some homegrown way.”

“That would likely mean spreading it out over a long period of time, or doing particular parts in some deliberately phased order,” he said.

But Dillon said something has to change.

“We’re not setting up kids as well as we might,” he said, referring to programs like science or automotive shop that require the right infrastructure.

“And [Monument’s] cold in the winter and hot in the summer,” he said, “and it’s not particularly secure.”

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshrieeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.