Great Barrington listserv becomes community sounding board
GREAT BARRINGTON -- Karen Christensen wanted to get to know her neighbors better, so she started a listserv.
Three years ago, Christensen, who lives on Castle Street in Great Barrington, began collecting e-mail addresses, adding them to an online Google group called TheHillsGB, and with time the whole block was a simple click away.
Whether it was finding a cheap plumber, a lost pet, or letting people know about an ice rink, locals could write an email, shoot it out via the listserv, and then 167 of their neighbors would know about it.
In the run-up to a Tuesday vote about a $56 million wholesale renovation of Monument Mountain Regional High School though, the listserv has become a forum for neighbors to express their divided opinions.
The high school project has received overwhelming support from district towns Great Barrington, Stockbridge, and West Stockbridge, but it's hit a raw nerve with some residents who will pay a tax increase of $109 to $118 per $100,000 of assessed valuation, if approved.
"It's the [single issue] I've seen most posted out and divided," said Leigh Davis who lives in the area.
Christensen, who runs Berkshire Publishing Group and serves as moderator, says the Google Group includes people who live on Great Barrington's west side around Castle Street up to Lake Mansfield Road.
The listserv was a natural digital evolution of a small corkboard she has erected on her lawn where people can tack on community-related matters.
"It's about community building in a small geographic location, but using this online connectivity to reinforce this community," Christensen said.
The recent flurry of posts are civil, but divided on the Berkshire Hills Regional School District renovation project, she said. Great Barrington would face the largest tax increase since it has the most students in the district.
The renovations are necessary, school officials say, because it's the most cost-effective way to bring 21st century learning amenities, ensure school security, and bring the building up to state and federal building codes.
Finance Committee members, which include Davis and Sharon Gregory, who lives in the area, have posted their thoughts. Following her recent endorsement of the project, Davis wrote a post explaining the gradual evolution of her thoughts and eventual support of the project, stating it's the most cost-effective way to repair the school.
"You don't have to edit yourself because you know they are your neighbors," Davis said. "Whereas if they were across Great Barrington, you might think twice."
Residents are also weighing in. An Oak Street resident compared it to taking a pass on a car you can afford in favor of something you can't afford. A Berkshire Heights resident said repairs are taking place daily at the high school and the project is necessary.
There are also contributed posts, passed on by Christensen in her role as moderator. Finance Committee member Thomas Blauvelt submitted a post stating that Great Barrington's taxes are at the highest level in its history, and might hinder future project. The town will need to repair the Ramsdell Library, Wastewater Treatment Plant and 10 town-owned bridges.
On Friday, Christensen forwarded an e-mail that shows the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance has requested BHRSD to remove a link on its website to another website advocating the project. Public resources aren't allowed to be used for political purposes, the official states in the email.
The ongoing dialogue about the high school renovations received praise from the BHRSD Superintendent Peter Dillon.
"People being engaged in meaningful and informed dialogue is important," Dillon stated in an email. "That's been the basis of our work as a district and in supporting the high school project. At its best, the HillGB site seems to support that."
As moderator, Christensen plays a pivotal role. She said establishing geographical boundaries is important because it creates trust and familiarity. The moderator must be "scrupulously neutral and hospitable."
Clear principles developed in advance allow for emails to passed along quickly without over-examination. For example, the group doesn't permit commercial advertisements.
"The great thing is its real people's voices bringing in their expertise," Christensen said.
While there's been ample discussion about the high school project, the listserv is a place to ask questions or for neighbors to ask one another for help. Davis says she recently asked her neighbors if anyone had costumes she could use for her three children, and she received a prompt response.
"We are strong minded but at the end we'll have barbecues and invite people over and it's a positive group," Davis said.
To reach John Sakata:
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