Doubts could sideline Wahconah project
Construction on new regional high school might stall after Hinsdale questioned vote
DALTON — Rather than take voter approval to the bank, proponents of a $72 million regional high school find themselves struggling to keep the project alive.
Questions raised about the legality of April's Central Berkshire Regional School District vote stand in the way of a pending bond sale, officials concede. Without financing, the project to replace Wahconah Regional High School cannot move forward.
"It has the potential of being stopped," said Thomas Callahan, co-chairman of the School Building Committee.
"The bond is dead," said Ed Munch, a Peru Select Board member who is among a group of town officials critical of the project.
Last week, the project manager asked the building committee for guidance, given the borrowing problem that emerged. That came after Hinsdale's Select Board notified the district that it retained a law firm to handle a possible legal challenge over how the vote was taken.
That step resounded, even though the town hasn't yet filed any civil action in court.
"Bond counsel is reluctant to put [a bond] in place until the Hinsdale issue is resolved," John Benzinger, the project manager, wrote July 11 to the building committee. "We need a decision whether to proceed or not."
The building committee might make that call July 25, when it meets at 4 p.m. in the Wahconah library in Dalton. A full district school committee session will follow that evening.
Superintendent Laurie Casna said she and others are working to find common ground with officials in Hinsdale that could remove the legal cloud — and allow borrowing to proceed. It is customary for lenders to consider whether borrowers face legal issues that could affect their ability to pay.
Casna acknowledges that even as talks continue, delays could result in a new school not being ready as planned for use in September 2021.
"The clock hasn't run out, but we're up against a very tight timeline," she said.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority, which will contribute $31.38 million of the project's cost, has not set a deadline for the issue to be resolved but is watching the situation, Casna said.
"They have a right to push a pause button," she said of the state agency.
Already, uncertainty might delay work on underground electrical conduits at the Old Windsor Road school site. Officials hoped to finish that work before students arrive for a new school year.
If delays continue, the district might plan to open the school in the middle of the 2021-2022 year, rather than at the start.
Waiting also can drive up prices. Construction costs are based on estimates for the middle of 2020, Callahan said. Expenses for construction materials are projected to rise 3 to 5 percent a year, he said.
To date, the district has committed itself to paying $2,383,513 for work performed. The project is being handled by Skanska and the architectural firm Drummey Rosane Anderson. The district recently hired Barr & Barr as its construction manager. Callahan said the project's monthly costs at this point are about $500,000.
The architects are poised to deliver a "designated design" to the state agency.
Barbara Craft Reuss, chair of the district school committee, met Tuesday with Vivian Mason, who leads Hinsdale's top board, to explore ways to resolve the impasse.
"The good news is that we're talking," she said of the meeting. "We talked. That's key to moving forward. I'm guardedly optimistic."
Mason is as well. But to get there, the district must provide concessions.
"Hopefully, everybody's going to give," Mason said, referring to points of contention. "Which is the best kind of compromise."
She added: "We are hopeful we're going to have a resolution to this very soon."
To date, Hinsdale is the only town where officials have taken steps to begin a legal challenge. Cummington, Peru and Windsor are the other district towns that voted down the project April 6.
The project passed that day in the seven-town district by 88 votes, carried, in part, by a 274-vote margin in Dalton. The new school also was backed in Becket and Washington.
Kim Tobin, who leads Windsor's top board, notified the district last week that the town stands with Hinsdale. But Windsor has not committed itself to a legal challenge, citing concerns about legal costs at a time when the town is in court with a former board member and in the midst of a municipal broadband project.
On Monday, Munch and his two colleagues on the Peru Select Board will take a second vote on whether to join Hinsdale's legal challenge.
This week, the board tied 1-1 on the question, with member Verne Leach, the chairman, withholding his vote, saying he wanted more time to consider the matter.
"It's a very big decision. I've just got to sort it out," Leach said. "There's a lot riding on it."
Munch voted to join the legal fight, with another board member, Bruce Cullett, voting against that.
Leach noted that 61 percent of Peru residents who voted April 6 were against the project. This past Monday, the issue drew as big an audience as town meeting usually gets. Leach said the crowd included school supporters and those in favor of a legal challenge. He estimated the audience to be split evenly at the nearly two-hour discussion.
Not surprisingly, questions of money came up. Some wondered whether, by suing the district, people were in practice taking themselves to court, since Peru and all district towns would share the cost of the district's legal defense.
"Are we throwing money away?" Leach asked.
Munch said school supporters, including Bonny DiTomasso, the town's representative to the building committee, argued that a lot of money had been invested in a new school.
"It was a very passionate meeting," he said.
Munch wants the project to face a revote and for questions on capital spending to be decided by a majority of towns, as called for in the district's founding agreement, and not by a majority of residents, as happened this year.
Over past months, Munch feels, the district has not been forthcoming with information.
"It's like trying to pick up Jell-O with a pitchfork," he said. "The School Committee wouldn't even talk to us — and now all of a sudden they want to."
"When Hinsdale said they were going to take action against them, that stopped them dead in the water," Munch said.
In Cummington, where voters rejected a request in 2017 to fund a Wahconah feasibility study, the question of joining a legal challenge could be decided Thursday.
"It's a witch's brew," said Bill Adams, a member of the panel. "We're looking at our options at the moment."
Adams said officials in all four towns are in touch and considering ways to support one another.
Casna said she hopes to reach a settlement with Hinsdale officials in the coming week. But it remains unclear what the terms might involve.
In a May 30 letter to the district, Mason called for a new vote on the project and a return to the traditional form of voting by town, not by a popular tally.
Mason declined Wednesday to say what aspects of the building project most concern her at this point. She said the Hinsdale Select Board might schedule a special meeting July 26, when it could consider steps in light of actions taken the day before by the district committees.
"We'll have to see how it plays out," Mason said. "I mostly want the district not to be torn apart. I hate the dissension."
Though Mason and other town officials have faulted the district's use of a popular vote, another legal case in Massachusetts has upheld the lawfulness of that.
Hinsdale claims that the district also failed to meet a deadline on providing final ballot language to the towns before the April vote. That was expected to form the basis for a legal challenge.
After the simple fact of hiring a lawyer became an impediment to bonding, Hinsdale's bargaining position improved greatly.
Casna declined to predict how talks will go.
"It depends on what they're asking for and what they're willing to accept," Casna said of Hinsdale. "Have we narrowed down the issues to get us closer together? It seems like yes. The conversations are at least not moving backward."
Callahan, the Dalton man who is a former Wahconah principal, praised officials in Peru for hearing all sides and said he respects people like Mason for standing up for their constituents.
"They're doing what they believe they've got to do," he said of town officials challenging the district.
"It's anybody's guess if Hinsdale changes its mind on it," Callahan said.
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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