MONTEREY — If town residents vote to authorize the Select Board to sell the deteriorating one-room Monterey School, a member of the Select Board plans to step up to bid on and save the structure from further depreciation.
Select Board member Steve Weisz says he is looking to save one of Monterey’s most historic and important structures.
Built in 1875, the schoolhouse has not been in operation since the 2015-2016 academic year. The schoolhouse had been an active building of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District (SBRSD) and served early-kindergarten and kindergarten students. Enrollment in its most recent years has been in the single digits. The operation of the school is currently suspended due to low enrollment.
Besides the Monterey United Church of Christ, Weisz considers the schoolhouse the most important building in town.
“The Monterey School House, which is about 150 years old, was the second most important building in town,” Weisz said, noting that a church or a meeting house was required for a municipality to be recognized in the 1700s.
Until the 1970s, both the police department and the Select Board had meetings in the school house before the town built what is now known as Town Hall, according to Weisz.
“They finally had to build a new building because the file cabinets were getting so heavy it started to warp the floor on the second floor,” he said. “They were afraid it was going to collapse. The building itself is an essential, and very important structure to the town.”
The original agreement between the town and the school district was that if they were to use it as a school building, the district would also maintain the structure, he said. Instead, the building has been in disrepair for about a decade and has been completely empty inside for the past five years, he added.
“The school district, in my opinion, and in the opinion of most of the inspectors, failed to maintain the building properly,” Weisz said. “With old structures, the longer that they are not used, they decay rapidly. The latest engineering report identifies that the foundation is crumbling, it’s got a lot of wood rot, it’s got asbestos and lead paint.”
Weisz, who is also the chairperson of the Monterey Historic Commission, said that the school district then eliminated the school’s teacher and informed the Select Board that due to the building’s condition, there would not be a new teacher put in place.
One of the challenges Weisz faces in trying to preserve the historic school house is the landscape of the .29-acre parcel, which sits about 10 feet above the street level. If Weisz is indeed successful in bidding for the structure, he says an option exists where the schoolhouse could be physically moved across the street to a piece of town-owned property.
Sitting on the adjacent 11-acre property is the Monterey Community Center, which hosts adult programs as well as serving as a community hub to the town’s residents.
“There’s a lot of extra property there,” Weisz said. “If the idea is to ultimately restore the house for town use, it might make sense to move it to the Community Center property so it would share the property. There is parking, lighting, and some infrastructure there. It’s almost exactly across the street, so you’re not moving it five miles.”
Physically moving the schoolhouse from its original foundation could cost around $100,000, not including the stripping out the asbestos and lead paint, he said.
“Ultimately, we’re talking about a project that, with the moving, it may approach between a quarter million and a half million dollars,” he said.
Kenn Basler, chairperson of the Monterey Select Board, echoed Weisz’s sentiments that the schoolhouse building brings historical value to the town, but said preserving the structure would be a “major undertaking” for such a difficult site. He credited Weisz in his plans to preserve the structure.
“I think the building is in such dire shape that trying to preserve it would be a monumental task,” Basler said. “I think it’s beyond what the town can do.”
Basler cites the shrinking population across Berkshire County and among school age kids in Monterey as one of the primary reasons the schoolhouse is not operational today. Basler said that the last classroom to go through the Monterey School in 2015 was only made up of six students and that it was getting more difficult to justify the costs for a teacher and a teacher’s aide for the building.
In the event that the town votes against giving the Select Board the authority to sell the property, Weisz says he would immediately propose that the town work on grant applications to restore the building, adding that restoring an old building is not a cheap solution.
“I think the most important thing is that it’s really an effort to save the building itself,” he said. “As a member of town government, but also as a Monterey citizen, it’s one of the most important buildings in Monterey. If we could do something to save it, then I think that we should.”
The town had the opportunity to authorize the Select Board to sell the property at their December special town meeting, but instead voted to table the discussion until the Annual Town Meeting in May.
An open public hearing for the Monterey School will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.