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Adjusted School Renovation Project On November's Ballot In Berkshires

Facebook: Monument Matters

Select Boards in three Berkshire County towns have endorsed a controversial high school renovation project, but town voters will have a say come Election Day.On November 4th, voters in Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge will approve or disapprove a $51 million renovation of Monument Mountain Regional High School. The three towns make up the Berkshire Hills Regional School District

This project represents a scaled-back version of a $56 million proposal, a concept approved by the towns’ combined voters by just six votes last November. Ballots in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge overwhelmingly supported it, but the measure was defeated by a vote of 955 to 596 in Great Barrington, where most of the taxpayer increase will be felt. Stephen Bannon chairs the district’s school committee and is also a Great Barrington selectman who voted in favor of the current proposal.

“By far the number one issue was tax fatigue,” Bannon said. “We heard that loud and clear. The cost of the project. The increase in the taxes. Then some of it was our own blame. Not explaining it well enough and not doing a better job of selling the project.”

Each town must independently vote to exclude the cost from the levy limit under Proposition 2 1/2. The rejection of this last year in Great Barrington is what stopped the project. Bannon believes it will pass this time.

“We’re not really close to 2 ½ in Great Barrington, but we don’t know what the future will bring,” Bannon said. “So the town manager and town administration really would like us to override 2 ½ in case in the future we bump up against that levy limit. So for next year at least we really wouldn’t need the 2 ½ override, but in future years no one can predict.”

Superintendent Peter Dillon says if the project was scaled back any more the district would have to reapply with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which has already approved about $23 million for the project.

“I think last year they [MSBA] got 200 applications and they approved 13 of them so that’s exactly 6.5 percent,” Dillon said. “So it’s a highly competitive process with lots of schools in need and we’re very fortunate that they saw us as one that they want to support.”

The district has also extended the payment plan from 20 to 25 years to limit the initial impact on taxpayers. The annual taxpayer impact is reduced by 18 to 30 percent from the previous proposal. Great Barrington taxpayers would pay an additional $92 per $100,000 of assessed property value, down about $20 a year from the previous proposal.

At issue is whether a major renovation of the 46-year-old school is needed in an area with declining enrollment. State projections predict enrollment will level off at 570 students at Monument Mountain in 2024, down from about 650 in the 1990s.

Also, there are about 135 students who choice into the high school from other districts, which generates annual revenue of $675,000. Overall choice-in students bring more than $1 million into the district across the elementary, middle and high schools. Bannon and Dillon say the renovation is not about attracting more students from outside the area. Dillon says the district has switched gears by instituting a lottery system, admitting just two new choice-in high school students this past year.

“We’re trying really hard to fill empty seats to the point of right before hiring an additional teacher or bringing on a staff person,” said Dillon.

Bannon is hopeful the project will retain the roughly 100 students who decide to go to schools outside the district each year at a cost of $600,000.

If approved, construction would start in 2016.