Our Opinion: Confronting reality about Monument Mountain Regional High School

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When Great Barrington voters rejected the Berkshire Hills Regional School's District's proposals for a renovated Monument Mountain Regional High School in 2013 and 2014 they assured that the can would be kicked down an increasingly rocky road. Today, the school building has further decayed, the costs of renovation or replacement have increased dramatically and the state must again be petitioned for financial assistance.

Weeks after voters in the Central Berkshire Regional School District avoided this fate by approving financing of a much-needed new Wahconah Regional High School, the BHRSD is starting from scratch. After a 10-month study, the 14-member Next Steps committee has reached the obvious conclusion that patching up the 51-year-old high school building is not good enough. The school will either have to be extensively renovated or a new school will have to be built (Eagle, May 26).

While voters in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge approved the projects five and six years ago, Great Barrington voters did not, with an increase in the property tax to pay the town's share of the costs a main concern along with the debt burden for the district's elementary and middle schools. An amended agreement among the district's three towns will lower the cost of a new or renovated high school to Great Barrington and the debt for the elementary and middle schools will be paid by 2023. This may make a bond vote easier to sell in Great Barrington. However, what was a $28 million renovation project in 2013 and 2014 could rise to between $70 million and $90 million a decade later, and the cost of a new school could be between $79 million and $100 million. These estimates will be fine-tuned as the exploratory process goes forward. The contribution to school projects from the state has not risen in proportion to the costs, so the $23 million available several years ago may not increase, and if it does, $31 million appears to be the ceiling for a new school according to officials.

And something has to be done. The school's documented problems with inadequate heat and an aging infrastructure and it will cost $51 million to fix them piecemeal. As the Next Steps committee observed, the district must adopt a new vision for its high school that is consistent with contemporary educational standards. That means, among other things, better vocational and career-oriented courses and classroom space that encourages rather than discourages collaborative learning. CBRSD officials recommended construction of a new building in large part because the high school's structure was so outdated that it would essentially have to have been gutted to meet current educational needs. Monument Mountain is from the same era as Wahconah and would likely require the same kind of renovation/reconstruction. Building a new school, ideally on the site, will be less disruptive to students and result in a better finished product.

At a meeting last Thursday when the Next Steps committee offered its findings, Great Barrington Select Board member Leigh Davis asked if further regionalization should be explored first. The smaller, neighboring five-town Southern Berkshire Regional School District would logically be a part of the BHRSD but has shown little interest in exploring a merger. A new or massively renovated building would be needed regardless, and School Committee Chairman Stephen Bannon said Thursday "We can't hold up the project for a group that is not interested at this point."

The project has been held up long enough. A new or renovated district high school would benefit students, parents and the member towns. The can has already been kicked too far down the road.

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