Next Steps committee vote: Either renovate Monument High or build anew

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Repairs and tweaks to the old school just won't do.

Monument Mountain Regional High School either must be rebuilt or renovated, and it must be aligned with a new vision for the future of education, declared a group charged with examining options for the school.

The vote was unanimous.

The 14-member Next Steps committee, which spent 10 months drilling down into the needs of the 51-year-old high school and its future students, presented its findings Thursday to the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee after student-led tours of the deteriorating school.

Now, it's up to the School Committee to decide which option it will choose. It already has submitted a new statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority. Once accepted into the state's program, discussions with the authority about cost and educational factors will help the district decide.

This is just the beginning, School Committee Chairman Stephen Bannon said in response to questions.

"We're not starting a debate yet about what were going to do," he said.

Next Steps was charged only with weighing out all the options, said committee co-Chairman William Fields.

And that has been a long struggle. The building is in such disrepair that fixing everything in it is estimated to cost about $51 million.

In 2013 and 2014, Great Barrington voters rejected the district's two renovation proposals, citing the property tax hike from the $28 million cost after the MSBA's $23.2 million reimbursement.

Now, a renovation/addition that starts in 2023 could range from about $70 million to $96 million. A new school might range from about $79 million to $100 million, with the state kicking in about $23 million to $31 million.

No estimate was available for how much the state might kick in for the renovation option.

An amended regional agreement among Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge will lower the burden of capital costs on Great Barrington. And the debt from the elementary and middle schools will be all paid up by 2023.

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But the price is murky right now.

"Without financial figures in front of us, we can't really say which is the least expensive," said Next Steps co-Chairman Paul Gibbons.

The group said building a new school would be less disruptive to students during construction, and would cost less in the long run. Renovating and expanding the existing building might cost less in the short run and be more "politically attractive."

Either option will put the district's new vision at the forefront. Its concept is to merge disciplines, and strengthen vocational and career-oriented programs, and build spaces that encourage collaborative learning.

Before Thursday's meeting, students led a tour of the school and pointed to its many shortfalls, including a confusing building layout, cold conditions, insufficient cafeteria seating and the lack of natural light.

"It's easy to go a whole day without seeing the sun," said Ameilya Hadsell.

And Elana Doren said she wears her coat inside during winter.

Yet, taxpayers are still worried.

Calling consolidation, or the merging with another districts, the "elephant in the room," Great Barrington Select Board member Leigh Davis asked if that option had been addressed, given projected decline in student populations.

Bannon said that for more than a decade it has been discussed unsuccessfully between districts, and that this project can't wait.

"We can't hold up the [building] project for a group that is not interested at this point," he said.

Besides, said School Committee member Jason St. Peter, students in this district will need a new building, regardless.

"What we have now is unacceptable," he said.

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


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