GREAT BARRINGTON — What was expected to be a relatively easy, no-frills solution to begin protecting Housatonic’s dilapidated former school building from the elements has itself become a challenge.
As townspeople decide the future of the former Housatonic School on Pleasant Street, town officials were hoping to hire a contractor this month to tarp the roof and board up the windows. But, only one contractor bid on the project, and that bid was nearly quadruple the estimated cost.
“We had one bidder on the project, and their bid was $95,000,” Department of Public Works Superintendent Sean VanDeusen told the Select Board at its meeting Monday, Sept. 13. Voters at the annual town meeting in June approved that $25,000 be put aside for the project. That number was based on cost estimates received this spring.
VanDeusen said the “extraordinarily high” bid was not entirely surprising, considering an increase in the cost of building materials and shortages in labor.
“It’s just a different market out there than it was even six months ago,” he told the board. “It’s increasingly difficult to come up with cost estimates and then to actually have the project come in. … This is what you end up getting sometimes. It’s a favorable market for contractors looking to capitalize on a project like this.”
But, with a $70,000 shortfall, Select Board Vice Chair Leigh Davis asked what Plan B might be. Board Chair Stephen Bannon said the project will be included on the board’s agenda for its next regularly scheduled meeting Sept. 27.
In the meantime, VanDeusen said he plans to solicit more bids.
“I’m sure other carpenters will be calling saying they can do it for less,” he told The Eagle on Tuesday. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to come back to the board in a couple weeks with a different outcome.”
The town still hopes to have the 14,000-square-foot building protected from the weather by winter. Its roof has been leaking for years. Vandals have smashed many of its windows.
Because cost estimates exceeded $10,000, the town was required to put out the project to bid. The contractor who had provided the original quote of $25,000 did not wind up bidding on the project, “probably because they are so busy,” VanDeusen told The Eagle.
Because of staffing constraints, and technical and safety concerns, the town is in no position to do the work, VanDeusen told The Eagle.
“Most of the staff are not carpenters. They are not familiar with operating a [motorized lift], either. We don’t own the carpentry equipment in-house to do that. And certainly, when it comes time to tarp a roof, they are not equipped with the training, necessarily, or the safety equipment to do this sort of work,” he said.
“Additionally, the staffing limitations — my staff would be doing that and not, say, mowing the lawns, cleaning out the culverts for winter, patching potholes,” he said.
Residents in Housatonic remain at odds over the future of the 112-year-old building. Some want it razed and the site incorporated into a green space with the adjacent playground, possibly with a pavilion. Others want the building renovated, through a public-private partnership or town-funded effort.
In 2017, because of financing questions, the town rejected a local builder’s proposal for a public/private partnership to turn the building into business offices and affordable housing.
Through the years, the town has issued several requests for proposals to put the building into some type of re-use, all to no avail. In 2019, the town earmarked $1.3 million for repairs and work on the school.
Dan Bailly, the chair of that committee, said the committee plans to present a formal recommendation to the town Oct. 25. The building housed the village’s elementary school until 2005, when the Berkshire Hills Regional School District moved students to its new regional schools off Route 7. It then was used until 2013 for school district offices, until those offices moved to Stockbridge. The building hasn’t been used since then.
Town estimates had put the cost to raze the building at $850,000. The school district had estimated that bringing the building up to code would cost $900,000, and lead paint and asbestos remediation would run about $850,000.
Those estimates might be meaningless at this point, VanDeusen said.