Panel backs creation of new Wahconah Regional High School

An architect's rendering of the proposed Wahconah Regional High School.

DALTON — Build it again, for a new century.

That's the call of the panel that, for a year, pondered the future for the aging Wahconah Regional High School, which serves seven towns of the Central Berkshire Regional School District.

Members of the Wahconah School Building Committee voted unanimously Thursday to back a plan that calls for building a 123,000-square-foot school on the existing site off Old Windsor Road in Dalton. Later on Thursday, the district's full School Committee endorsed that decision.

The project, estimated to cost $70.8 million to $74 million, will be submitted in September to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

That state agency will consider providing a 54.7 percent reimbursement for qualified elements of the project.

Carl R. Franceschi, an architect with Drummey Rosane Anderson, took members of the building panel through a recap of months of deliberations. Options included renovating the existing 58-year-old high school or starting anew.

Of two final renovation alternatives, one exceeded the cost of building a new structure, Franceschi said.

"I'm very confident that this design is the one for us," said Tom Callahan, the building committee's co-chair and a former 10-year Wahconah principal.

"I think this is the only option that we should go with, given what you presented," said John W. Bartels Jr., a Dalton representative. "It seems the only feasible one. The only issue that I expressed is cost."

If the project advances through the state authority and on to detailed designs, actual construction costs should be known by February, Franceschi said.

The project would need to pass muster at town meetings in the district's towns. Along with Dalton, the district includes Becket, Cummington, Hinsdale, Peru, Washington and Windsor.

Shortly before the vote was taken by the building committee, Mary Ellen Raymer of Dalton spoke from the audience and echoed Bartels' concerns about the price tag. But she backs the project nonetheless.

"We definitely need a new school," Raymer said.

Bartels said he hopes that the cost can be brought down as plans advance through the design process.

"I'm sold on the building. I'm sold on the project. I'm not sold on the cost," Bartels said.

Franceschi said that the design that will be submitted to the state was pared back from earlier versions, reducing its cost. Changes cut about 5,000 square feet from one design.

Amid concerns about how taxpayers in district towns will view the project, Aaron Robb, the Wahconah principal, said the work is crucial.

"I've started to live in two worlds. One is the school year that's about to begin," he told the committee. "And the other is what could be."

Laurie Casna, the district's superintendent, said the plan accepted by the building committee incorporates ideas gathered from "visioning" sessions held last winter and then meetings this spring in the towns. Those sessions briefed residents on price ranges for the array of options still under consideration.

"This is what you said. This is what you wanted," Casna said of the plan. "I think it's a great thing."

Shawn Armacost, chair of the district's School Committee, applauded an architectural design that fosters collaboration.

"It encourages working in a team environment," Armacost said. "We were never taught that in high school or college."

Though the expense might surprise some, he said an investment is unavoidable. "There are so many things wrong with this building right now. It's crazy."

Informational sessions will be held this fall on the plan in all of the district's communities. Geographically, Central Berkshire is the second-largest school district in the state.

School spirit

The architect and several members spoke of capturing the "Wahconah spirit" with the project, which some defined as "a small-school feel with big-school opportunities."

"That's a core tenet of what drove the vision of this," said Robb, the principal.

Bonnie DiTomasso, a Peru representative on the panel, said proponents of the project need to help sell its merits.

"This could be the diamond of the county," she said.

Members of the panel underscored that doing nothing with the school facility, which went into service in 1961, is not an option.

Franceschi said that it would cost as much as $40 million to address building problems, even short of a renovation, with none of the expense eligible for reimbursement by the state.

Ahead of the building committee's vote, he used animated software to guide members through the proposed new school, emphasizing that it meets the educational needs they outlined in earlier stages of their project.

The new building would sit just to the east of the existing school. After it is erected, the old structure would be taken down and its footprint remade into playing fields.

The design calls for a commons area that would serve as "the heart of the school," Franceschi said.

From that space, students and staff would be able to look through windows on the first floor of the academic wing and out onto green space.

A "learning commons" and media area was moved to the second floor of the academic wing in a revision, Franceschi said.

Rather than present people arriving at the school with a large outdoor gym wall, the plan calls for more windows.

"We think that will make it a more welcoming school," he said.

Franceschi said that a more accurate cost estimate will be ready in January or February, after more detailed plans are developed

"When we go to spring town meetings, we'll have very exact costs," Franceschi said.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.