Fixing Monument High is about students — and voters

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GREAT BARRINGTON — To renovate or rebuild? Both have political ramifications.

And either choice made about Monument Mountain Regional High School is loaded, for those in the position to decide.

"What's saleable to the public?" said Carl Bradford, a member of the Next Steps subcommittee. "It's colored my thinking on a lot of this."

At a March 21 meeting, members had trouble separating out the question of what the town's voters would support as they decide what is best for students into the future.

The subcommittee is studying options for its recommendation to the Berkshire Hills Regional School District's School Committee this spring.

For residents in a rural area where incomes do not keep up with property tax rates, concern about sharp tax hikes was one reason for the defeat of two previous attempts to renovate the 51-year-old school.

Given estimated costs of $70 million to $96 million to renovate and build an addition in 2023, the group does not have an easy charge. It is struggling with what will best serve students into the future, and what voters will tolerate.

In 2013 and 2014, town residents sank two attempts to renovate the school, mostly citing an increase in taxes and a higher burden of costs than Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.

The past two tries traumatized officials and others trying solve the problem of an aging school in an aging community.

"We need to get them into the building, so they can see how bad it is," said Next Steps Co-Chairman William Fields. "That's part of the marketing."

Fields and others said that during the past two votes, many residents didn't really know how dire the situation is. To repair everything in the building, for instance, would cost $51 million. A new building is estimated to run $79 million to $100 million — that has inflation built in to 2023. The district estimates that the state would kick in $23 million to $31 million.But the community has changed since 2014, say some Next Steps members. And a reshuffling of capital costs will lower the burden on Great Barrington. And by 2023, debt from the elementary and middle school construction will be all paid up.

Yet some think the only focus should be on what students in this area really need and want.

"It's not about the paint on the wall, it's not about the size of the classroom. It's about the ability to offer better programs and programs that will mesh with the community," said Diane Singer, also a school committee member. "I think this school fails at least half of its students the way it is."

Singer said that while it's great to have Advanced Placement classes, there also needs to be stellar vocational programs like automotive, agricultural and culinary, among others.

Then, she said, "the community will be built from the kids who stay here after they are trained." Others, she added, can earn college credit in some classes, and also remain in the area. "This will just be a better school."

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Most members were still undecided between building new or renovating. Some said a new school isn't necessarily better.

"We don't want to all assume that a new school is the right thing because we can fill it with whatever we want," said member Josh Shapiro, who with a team of New York University students came up with a visionary model for a renovation last year.

Others worry that a renovation will cause other problems.

"Kids will be disrupted for three years," Fields said.

"Or more," said Co-Chairman Paul Gibbons.

Member Daniel Bailly pushed back on this concern. "You're still getting the same education."

"We can argue that disruptive is now being in a building that hasn't been renovated," said Stephen Bannon, chairman of the School Committee, who attended the meeting.

Fields brought it back around to educational vision. School officials have said that whatever plan is chosen should reflect the shift away from traditional classroom education as the standard, and embrace group workspaces as the norm. They say vocational education should be more robust.

"So, we need to keep articulating that vision," said Steven Soule, the district's director of operations. "That's our sales pitch. If we're going to be a district that attracts a lot of kids, then we're going to have to have the facility to run it."

As another voter selling point, there was also talk of restoring what used to be a vibrant hub of adult education in the evenings at the school.

When it's time to do this selling, Bannon said, the district would need students to help. Lucy Doren, a senior, came to the meeting and said she would enlist a team.

"If we're talking about political feasibility, I think student voice is a huge part," she said.

Bannon worries that students who will have graduated before the school is built won't be motivated to help. But Doren said she has a solution for that.

"I have an arsenal of freshmen."

Next Steps will reconvene at 6 p.m. April 9 at Monument Mountain Regional High School.

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


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