DALTON — Getting voters to understand a ballot. That's the challenge leaders of one Berkshire school district confronted ahead of an off-cycle vote on a spring Saturday.
But there was more: Making clear what's not being decided, at least not yet, as the Central Berkshire Regional School District seeks approval for a feasibility study.
And just to raise the bar a little higher, they had to get accurate information out in seven towns across an area that on a good day can take an hour to cross by car.
Whether they succeeded will be known Saturday, when voters will be asked to endorse a top-to-bottom look at the 56-year-old Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton.
Going in, district leaders told The Eagle, they sought to take this one step at a time, assuring residents they would invest only in knowing more about the building's problems and possibilities.
If voters agree, the district would hire a team to recommend whether renovations can address Wahconah's shortcomings, or whether the school should be replaced.
If the study gets the green light, it may be because the district reached distinct demographic groups across the sprawling district.
Rather than rely on top-down pronouncements, the district sent representatives to senior centers, social clubs and transfer stations, bringing a face to tell the Wahconah story.
And so in Cummington, it was Michael Daniels, the high school's custodian since 1989, who traveled to the Council on Aging to talk about a building he may know more intimately than anyone. He has also handed out brochures at the town's transfer station.
"If you drive by the school, you wouldn't think about it," Daniels said Wednesday of Wahconah's building problems, standing beside the school's two aging boilers.
Though he's about to retire, Daniels joined the district's School Building Committee and volunteered to take its message to his hometown.
"When there's someone who is familiar in the community, it's a voice that they can trust," he said. "That helps. They have a foothold in the community, and people listen."
Daniels encouraged the town to send an automated phone call to Cummington residents reminding them of Saturday's vote. Another call goes out Friday.
Similar calls are being made in Dalton and Becket.
Despite driving to Worcester for work earlier Wednesday, Principal Aaron Robb planned to get to an evening meeting of the Dalton-Hinsdale Little League. His son plays, but Robb planned to use his baseball cred to push the merits of the feasibility study.
"You have to learn to talk to each community," Robb said.
He and Superintendent Laurie Casna visited the senior center in Dalton to help ensure older residents in the district's largest town understood the ballot question. On that trip, they combined face-to-face explanations with words on paper.
"We needed actual brochures that you can stick in people's hands," Robb said.
While some staff have been using social media to relay information on the vote, older forms are communication remained in play. The town of Washington newsletter carried details, side by side with an email blast that circulated in Hinsdale.
The effort is getting outside help as well. The Dalton Benefit Association, while not endorsing the vote, is urging people to cast ballots — a message it tweeted this week.
A former Wahconah principal, Tom Callahan, has been effective in reaching out to older residents of the district, Casna said. As co-chair of the building committee, and a longtime school presence, Callahan brings name recognition and credibility, in her view.
"We have a ton of connections in the retiree population," Casna said. "They can at least educate them about the vote."
Often, committees with lots of members can struggle to get things done. But in this case, the 26 members of the school building committee could be tapped to talk up the feasibility project in their home communities.
"Those are your neighbors, your friends," Casna said of this outreach effort. "We have multiple voices from a range of demographics, per town."
Casna said they've filtered out to book clubs, town gathering spaces and sparked neighborhood conversations. In part, the purpose was to be sure people understand what's on the ballot.
"The concern is the people who have the wrong information and vote no," Casna said.
While she and Robb started the presentations at four community meetings — she offering an overview, Robb explaining the building's educational shortcomings — it fell to district representatives from the hosting towns to bring it all the way home.
"I think it's been what works well here," Casna said.
Shawn Armacost of Hinsdale, chairman of the district's school committee and co-chair of the building committee, is happy the community meetings were well attended. But he too felt a need to reach people who don't go to such events or know much about the school.
"Anyone who's seen the facility agrees that it needs work. There's a lot of truth behind 'seeing is believing,'" he said.
On his travels, Armacost has been sounding a call to keep Wahconah viable.
"Without a strong high school it's hard for the district to maintain its health," Armacost said. "This is critically important to the district and critically important to the Berkshires."
Earlier Wednesday, Robb led The Eagle on a tour of the high school. It's an itinerary he knows well. A video version can be found on the district's website.
As classes changed around 9 a.m., he stood under stained ceiling tiles in the "A" corridor, below the site of a major leak last December.
"The running joke here is everything's great. Just don't look up," he said.
Though Wahconah once held 1,000 students, when they crowded into classrooms sometimes 30 strong, enrollment is now 543 in grades 9-12.
The district is the second-largest in Berkshire County, behind Pittsfield. Overall enrollment in all grades, kindergarten through 12, is 1,625. That includes 66 students attending Wahconah through the school choice program.
The size of the building isn't the main problem. But it was built in an era of classroom lectures and lacks spaces for collaborative learning. Two portable classrooms installed in the 1970s remain fused to the west side of the school.
Robb said that in community meetings, he and others have worked to explain that enrollment isn't the issue.
Robb walked past the lone art room, which seats 17 and can't accommodate student interest in the subject. A few halls ahead, the one science lab, with room for 25 students, serves seven teachers in all disciplines, who must book space in advance.
Without lab access, the school can't reach its goals, Robb noted. "You don't want students sitting and receiving science. You want them doing it," he said.
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.