Great Barrington considers a building spree

Great Barrington, for the most part, has kept up with the times. A former textile mill-based community on the banks of the Housatonic River, it has developed a vibrant downtown in recent years. Tourists flock there for dinner and the movies before and after going to the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Stockbridge and Tanglewood in Lenox. A wide range of restaurants and trendy nightspots like Club Helsinki, a live-music venue, coexist with more homely establishments like the venerable Gorham & Norton market in a downtown where residents can still shop for groceries and go to the hardware store.

Great Barrington Quick Facts

Incorporated as a town: 1761
Population: 7,254
Town Meeting: Open

Facts:

  • Great Barrington’s most famous son and daughter were, respectively, W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), who co-founded the NAACP, and Laura Ingersoll Secord (1775-1868), who moved as a teenager to Ontario, became a British subject, and is considered by many in Canada to be the heroine of the War of 1812. (The ability of Canadian forces to defeat the American troops at the battle of Beaverdams has been attributed to her bravery and determination.) The town honored DuBois with a memorial in 1996, after his late-life communist leanings became less controversial.

  • Tourism remains the prime industry in Great Barrington, with visitors arriving in the summer for the Aston Magna classical music festival and in winter for skiing at nearby Butternut Basin. The town has also attracted the notice of Hollywood, and several recent films, including The Cider House Rules, have been partly shot here.

But if in these respects Great Barrington has managed to seamlessly blend the old and the new, its schools are another matter. Berkshire Hills Regional School District is the only school district in Berkshire County that has not significantly modernized its buildings, most of which were built near the beginning of the 20th century. For the past 12 years, school officials have been trying to construct a new school in Great Barrington or renovate the five aging buildings in three towns where the district’s 891 schoolchildren are taught until they go to high school.

The last time a proposal was put forth, in 1999, it was to build a single schoolhouse for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade on the Monument Mountain Regional High School campus on the outskirts of town. Following a fairly exhaustive campaign, the project was approved by town meetings in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, the other communities comprising the district, but Great Barrington town meeting voted it down. At the time, critics complained that school officials didn’t provide enough information on the project, but building proponents shot back that few citizens attended the many informational meetings they had. There was also some dissension within the school committee, with one member, Karen Christensen, saying voters should be given the option of community elementary schools. And that dispute continues to hinder plans for new Berkshire Hills schools.

“I can’t believe that people in Great Barrington are so dense they’re destroying their children,” says Alice Bubriski, an 80-year-old former schoolteacher, of the continuing resistance to school construction. (Bubriski is the head of senior transportation in town and is such a forceful speaker at town meetings that residents refer to her as “mayor.”) “The potential for disaster is tremendous,” she adds.

Doing nothing is no longer an option. The district is mandated to show progress toward providing handicapped access, in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, by 2003. School-district officials, after another round of studies and public informational meetings, have concluded that building two new schools–one for pre-kindergarten through grade four and another for grades five through eight–is the most cost-effective answer. The new facilities would be located on one of several available parcels near the high school.

The school committee has determined it will cost the district some $9 million after state reimbursement just to renovate the current schools, compared with some $12 million for two brand-new buildings. (The total cost of construction, including the state’s share of the bill, would be close to $30 million.) After recent reforms, the state’s school building assistance program now offers incentives to renovate existing buildings, rather than build from scratch, but there are still reasons to favor new construction.

“A lot of it has to do with what you’re left with,” says Michael Kinne, who recently retired as business administrator for the schools. “What you’re left with is the basic infrastructure of a 100-year-old building with small-sized classrooms, and there’s nothing else you can add. There’s very little land around the buildings.” The space factor is important because districts get a better reimbursement deal when they include educational “enhancements,” such as new libraries, as part of a construction or renovation program. Thus, the higher price tag for two brand-new schools in the Berkshire Hills district includes modern libraries at both facilities, books and all.

“If people can put their emotions aside, get their personal and ‘adult’ agendas out of there, and look at the financial aspects of what can be done for the children, it’s a no-brainer,” says Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee member Deborah Kain.

Renovation holdouts could cause trouble for the plan.

But in Great Barrington, the school construction plan still has its opponents, emotional or not. They say they’re not against putting money into school facilities, only building new schools from scratch. The renovation holdouts could cause trouble for the plan when it comes up for a vote again this year, most likely at special town meetings in June.

“I believe it’s a sociological mistake” to shut the old schools down, says Paul Kleinwald, who owns an antique store in town with his wife, Susan. “It ruins the fabric of society,” he says. “The little kids don’t get to walk down the street anymore. They don’t get to know the merchants along the way. I want to see these little schools have a chance to be nimble and excite the children and have a small, community-type setting where they can get to know each other, where the kids can sit at the same table and eat lunch together with the teachers…, where they have a feeling of belonging.”

Kleinwald believes the school committee made a mistake in the 1980s when it decided to consolidate children by grade level in each of the district’s existing school buildings–a mistake that would be compounded by the school construction plan. Currently, some 50 kindergartners-through-third-graders go to elementary school in West Stockbridge, and another 100 go to Housatonic, a village of Great Barrington. All the district’s fourth- and fifth-graders go to school in Stockbridge, and the 100 or so Berkshire Hills sixth-through-eighth-graders attend Bryant Middle School in Great Barrington.

Though he served on a subcommittee of the task force that examined the school-construction issue leading up to the 1999 town meeting, Kleinwald helped vote the proposal down. He vows to make his case again this year. In fact, he’s so fed up with what he views as an entrenched bureaucracy that in mid-January he wrote to state Education Commissioner David Driscoll urging him to approve the pending Green River Charter School. The charter school promises smaller classes and freedom from the school district’s bureaucratic constraints, according to supporter Ciaran McCabe.

To Kleinwald, the push for gleaming new buildings has distracted the Berkshire Hills educational establishment from the real work of schools.”They have a country club compared to what 90 percent of the rest of the world has, and they want to build a brand new structure and they’re only minimally addressing issues that have to do with education,” Kleinwald says.”We’ve got a throwaway society. Teach kids to appreciate things that are handcrafted. Teach kids to open their eyes. Teach them to question.”

But former teacher Bubriski says that people opposed to new schools “are doing the children and themselves a disservice.” The conditions of the old schools are downright dangerous, she says. At the Stockbridge school, there is very little room for school buses to maneuver or for parents to park, creating a safety hazard, she says; children are eating lunch in basements next to boiler rooms. Only the middle school has a library, and that one’s inadequate, says Bubriski.

And if so much time weren’t wasted talking about new schools instead of building them, she adds, more time could be spent coming up with the innovative instructional strategies touted by charter-school proponents. “God almighty, I could think of a lot of things to do.”

Kain, a teacher in Lenox whose three children go to school in the Berkshire Hills district, agrees that too much time has been spent on facilities, but she says the disagreement is a result of deep-seated “personal beliefs about what is better or best,” beliefs that aren’t about to change. “You’re never going to change anybody’s belief system,” says Kain. “So what it comes down to is the financial impact on the town.”

Indeed, Bubriski and others say, the delay in modernizing the schools one way or another has already meant that, in the worsening financial climate, it will take longer for the district to collect reimbursement money from the state, once the decision to proceed is finally made. “It’s going to take several years for any district that builds now to get their first aid payment,” says Kinne. “It’s just a function of how many projects are already out there and how much money the Legislature is approving for this.”

Meet the Author
Superintendent Danny B. Brown, who came to the district from Kentucky two years ago, and school committee chairman Steven Bannon are cautiously optimistic that town meeting will adopt the committee’s recommendation this year. But selling it is going to be a tough political campaign, they admit. On February 7, the school committee showed that it’s not taking victory for granted. It named a 12-member commission to oversee the construction of the new schools, but it first asked commission members to serve as “ambassadors”–by educating voters about the project and making sure that supporters turn up at this year’s town meetings. “In the end, education and communication is the toughest part,” says Brown. “You can never do enough, and we understand that going in.”

“We’re planning to meet and greet anyone we can,” says Bannon. “Not that we didn’t do that last time.”