Group narrowly favors new building for Monument High

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GREAT BARRINGTON — A group charged with weighing whether to renovate or build a new high school narrowly leaned toward a new school in an informal vote Tuesday.

At a meeting of the Next Steps subcommittee of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, members comprised of local officials and community members voted 8-6 in favor of replacing Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Next Steps will have a recommendation, likely within the next month, to present to the district's School Committee for the final decision.

But even those who are in favor of a new school can see the benefits of a renovation. And those who would prefer a renovation, can see why a new school might be the best way forward, said several members of the committee in phone interviews.

Mostly it depends on money. Yet the group is united on one front: a passion to focus either a renovation or rebuild on career and vocational education, also known as CTVE. They all want to make Monument a school that can educate students who are on a variety of paths.

"What I really like about this group is that everyone has the same mission," said Daniel Bailly, who supports a renovation. He said he considers the informal vote a "split."

The expense of doing either project continues to permeate the discussions.

"No matter what is finally recommended and accepted, it is going to be a hard sell [to voters] and very expensive, said Next Steps Co-Chairman Paul Gibbons. "It's going to scare a lot of people."

And it is this fear of the property tax increase that killed the district's two previous plans to sell a Monument renovation to Great Barrington voters who, at the time, shouldered the bulk of both the district's operating and capital costs in a district that also includes Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.

With capital costs now lifting some of that burden off Great Barrington, Next Steps members still think it could be an uphill climb to convince taxpayers to foot at least half of the bill for the 51-year-old deteriorating school whose costs to simply repair everything that needs it are estimated at $51 million.

Yet there are bright spots. Debt from the elementary and middle schools will be paid up by 2023, the year work on Monument would commence.

Unknowns

But there are unknowns that are making it hard for the group to cut a hard path forward.

One is the price tag. Rough estimates based on the district's previous applications to the Massachusetts School Building Authority peg a renovation/addition to range from $70 million to $96 million.

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A new school would range from around $79 million to $100 million. The district estimates the state might kick in $23 million to $31 million for a new school.

It is also unclear whether the MSBA's model school program would shave significant design costs off the price tag.

An MSBA spokeswoman told The Eagle that all conversations about buildings and costs have to wait until after the district has applied and been accepted by the authority. Then, the district can talk about entering the model school program, said Maria Puopolo.

One thing is fairly certain: A renovation would be disruptive, possibly for several years. This is what has some members cringing at the idea.

"The impact on students and teachers during a renovation is really questionable," said Next Steps Co-Chairman William Fields. "I think it's unfair."

Fields said member Diane Singer, who favored a renovation, had suggested transporting students to Mount Everett Regional High School in Sheffield, which is within a separate school district.

Gibbons has a different reason for wanting to build new. "I just feel that the building has outlived its usefulness," he said. "To make major changes in the building is going to have more things working against it."

He said the state should give more to rural districts struggling with their tax base, and aging and declining populations.

"I was very scared about the numbers I was reading about Wahconah," he said, referring to the $41.34 million cost to build a Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton, a project voters narrowly approved Saturday.

For Wahconah, the Authority is reimbursing $31.38 million of what is the total $72.72 million cost.

Bailly said that it will help to look at what the MSBA was able pitch in last time the district applied for its renovation/addition project — it nearly shaved off half, offering reimbursement of $23.22 million of the total $51.24 million renovation.

But it's still a toss-up, Bailly added.

"We can make our best educated guesses, but the MSBA could come back this time with something different — more money, or less."

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


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