Mount Greylock Building Debate Echoes Monument Mountain's
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A group of volunteers labored for years to create a school building plan that passed muster with state officials and held the promise of state money to renovate an outdated and unsound high school building.
In the 11th hour, residents concerned about the potential impact on local taxes campaigned to block the plan, arguing that the school could be repaired more cheaply and the state would still help.
Mount Greylock Regional School District in 2016? No, Berkshire Hills Regional School District in 2014.
The story of the effort to renovate and repair Monument Mountain Regional High School will sound familiar to folks involved in the effort to renovate and add to Mount Greylock. And it is a story that advocates of the Mount Greylock project hope will not be repeated when Lanesborough voters go to the polls on March 15.
Twice, voters in Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge had an opportunity to approve a $51 million project at Monument Mountain. And twice the question was defeated when voters in one of the district's member towns opted not to stay in the Massachusetts School Building Authority funding pipeline.
Fifteen months after the November 2014 vote to kill the project once and for all, one of the leaders of the Monument Matters group that advocated for the renovation, does not know what the group could have done differently to turn the tide.
"I've thought about that," Rebecca Gold said recently. "It's hard to say, 'No, we couldn't have done anything differently.' … But I don't know what we could have done differently.
"I've seen it with other things in town. There have been other really controversial things in Great Barrington. I've seen over and over again that some people don't want to engage in the process in a really productive way. And I think there's this deep distrust."
Building project proponents at Mount Greylock have been making the case that the MSBA — funded by 1 penny on the state sales tax — is going to spend its money to fund a school project somewhere. If it can't give upward of $33 million to Lanesborough and Williamstown because Lanesborough voters won't authorize about $10.6 million in debt (Williamstown OK'd its $22.3 million share last week), then the state authority will happily give the money to another school district.
According to the MSBA's website, the authority has 300 projects currently in its funding pipeline. Since 2004, only 12 projects — including Monument Mountain — have been rejected by a vote in their respective districts.
That is not to say the votes are always easy or undisputed. In neighboring North Adams, an MSBA-backed elementary school project was a hot-button issue in last fall's mayoral campaign even as finishing touches were being put on the building.
Distrust of government was a major factor in the failed Monument Mountain votes in 2013 and '14, Gold said.
"I think as soon as there is government money involved, there is such distrust in government," she said. "And that's part of the problem. For some people, if we're taking state money, we should be really wary of it. I think it's really hard to overcome.
"Obviously, people didn't want to pay for it, but what they didn't want to believe is we will be paying that and probably more because we didn't take advantage of that deal."
That points to another argument of the Mount Greylock project proponents: The district can either partner with MSBA and pay a district share of $31.5 million to $35.3 million or the district can make needed repairs to the existing building on its own at a price tag estimated to be more than $50 million.
And instead of a new, efficient building that serves the school's educational program, Mount Greylock will get the same 60-year-old structure brought up to contemporary building codes.
"You can pay less and get more, or you can pay more and get less," Mount Greylock School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Greene told a Lanesborough special town meeting, at which several residents and town officials spoke against supporting the building project.
Renovation opponents in South County are learning that lesson now.
"Our Building and Grounds Committee has put together an $11 million [repair] plan, but we have not acted on it yet," Berkshire Hills School Committee Chairman Stephen Bannon said. "In FY17, there is a recommendation of $100,000 to do what I guess would be minor repairs."
School officials have characterized the $11 million plan, which includes asbestos abatement and roof repairs as "Band-Aids" that do far less than the $52.1 million renovation (with $23 million from MSBA) would have accomplished.
"The vote failed because of a disconnect between the school and voters about what needed to be done and how much that project was going to accomplish," Bannon said. "People thought the money we needed was too much … and people thought we could go through the [MSBA's] Accelerated Repair program when it was clear [before the vote] and even clearer after the vote failed that that would not happen."
Bannon said MSBA did not give the district an official opinion about Monument Mountain's prospects for the Accelerated Repair program prior to the vote. But immediately after the second failed vote, the authority notified the district that the program would not be an option.
Accelerated Repair "targets school facilities with limited scope needs including roofs, windows and boilers in cases where all other systems are functioning and programmatic offerings are meeting standards," according to a November 2014 post-vote letter from MSBA quoted by Great Barrington's Berkshire Edge.
In Mount Greylock's case, no one is talking about Accelerated Repair, but project opponents are saying a failed vote in Lanesborough could lead to a cheaper alternative, a claim Greene repeatedly has refuted, most recently on social media.
"The project will not change," Greene wrote in a March 6 Facebook post. "If there are cost reductions, they will be minimal. [$]1-2 million at most. And these are savings we expect to gain through Value Engineering."
The Monument Mountain votes have been used as an example by people on both sides of the Mount Greylock issue.
Opponents have said the Great Barrington voters showed wisdom by not rushing to renovate Monument Mountain ahead of what some are predicting to be school consolidations — even going so far as to cite the work of the Berkshire County Education Task Force, even though the chairman of that group and its members refute that notion.
Proponents of the Mount Greylock project say Monument Mountain is a cautionary tale of what happens when voters are penny wise and pound foolish.
If there is a political lesson to be gained from the Monument Mountain experience, it may be that Mount Greylock proponents need to continue one-on-one advocacy with voters.
"One of the benefits of living in a small town is you can get in touch with the people in the government who are in charge of this," Monument Matters' Gold said. "But a lot of the people who were opposed to it didn't want to engage.
"[Opponents] were vocal. A lot of misinformation was conveyed by people who were not really knowledgeable and came up with their own theories about how this could be solved and publicized those things. It's hard to counter that once it's out there.
"We are definitely going to be paying for this, and we could have gotten so much more for our money."
Tags: MGRHS school project, MSBA,