Many questions, one refrain at meetings on new Wahconah Regional High School

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DALTON — As people stood to leave a meeting Tuesday night, one of Mary Lamke's friends came over to where she had just gotten the last word.

"I couldn't sit here without opening my mouth," Lamke told her friend, with a laugh, as they hugged in the Wahconah Regional High School cafeteria.

Lamke was one of about 70 residents who took seats under dim fluorescent lighting for the first of four briefings on what's wrong with the 58-year-old school — and why it should be replaced. The project must be approved April 6 by a majority of voters in the Central Berkshire Regional School District's seven towns. Final meetings will be held Thursday in Hinsdale and Becket.

Lamke raised her hand. The retired teacher started with praise for volunteers who helped shape the building plan, a point that brought the night's only applause.

But Lamke had another point to make. She looked at a piece of paper she had brought from home. It listed costs for one of Dalton's existing financial commitments. As the largest town in the school district, Dalton would shoulder two-thirds of the $41.3 million local cost of a new Wahconah.

"That scares me," said Lamke, whose family has lived in Dalton for 152 years. "It's scary for seniors. I'm not sure how we're going to survive here."

Behind her, a woman standing with her arms crossed had just seen figures on a screen up front showing the project cost: $72.7 million, before an expected state contribution of $31.3 million.

"It's a lot of money," said the woman, a former school nurse. "I am supportive, but I'm also concerned about my taxes."

Another Dalton resident, Larry Ward, urged project leaders to find ways to cut costs.

"Can you look into penny-pinching?" he asked. "As a taxpayer in this town, I don't think I'll be able to stay here very long."

Amid scattered expressions of support for a new Wahconah, residents of Dalton — and later, Windsor — cited concerns Tuesday about whether they can afford it.

John W. Bartels Jr., who heads Dalton's Select Board and sits on the Wahconah Building Committee, told Lamke and others in the room that it will be up to member towns to decide how to finance their shares of a new school, if the project advances.

"Everyone's got to come to their own conclusion [about] what to do," Bartels said of the April 6 vote. "It's all a personal thing."

It's also a different financial burden town by town, because the capital cost of the school would be allocated based on the number of students each community enrolls in the district. That ranges from a high of $560.76 a year for the owner of the average Dalton property to $62.13 a year for the owner of the average Becket property.

Those preliminary calculations are based on borrowing $42 million over 30 years at 4 percent interest.

Joe Diver, of Dalton, a supporter, rose to say he had come to trust the wisdom of decisions that have brought the project within a month of a deciding vote.

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"I trust where we are today," Diver said. "I've built up that trust over time by participating in the process."

Officials used the start of the meetings Tuesday in Dalton and Windsor to recap why they chose to submit a plan for a new 123,000-square-foot building, rather than repairing and adding to the Old Windsor Road school.

In short, Principal Aaron Robb told listeners that the building, apart from its many physical problems, no longer is suited to how people teach today, or how students learn. Sixty percent of Wahconah's students, he said, will enter professions that haven't yet emerged.

For them, a physical building must provide learning spaces that promote communication, creativity and collaboration.

The lead designer, Carl R. Franceschi, of Drummey Rosane Anderson Inc., detailed the current school's problems, then walked the audience through floor plans and artists' conceptions of a new Wahconah.

On the question of what district towns can afford, Franceschi made a point of listing "base repairs" that Wahconah will need in five to 10 years, a work list that added up to as much as $40 million without changing the school's layout or suitability.

"For relatively similar costs you get an entirely new building. It has a lot of advantages," he said.

One question from the audience seemed designed to drive home that point. Given the cost of base repairs not eligible for state reimbursement, a woman asked, isn't building anew a cheaper option?

Franceschi went on to acknowledge the cost of a new building to taxpayers.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime cost. We understand that. It's very significant," Franceschi said.

Two hours later, at the Windsor presentation, questions about costs surfaced early after the presentation.

Kim Tobin, chair of Windsor's Select Board, probed the district team and its advisers about assumptions behind cost projections, seeking more information from a representative of UniBank Fiscal Advisory Services. Tobin wanted to know whether projections considered possible changes in the financial condition of member towns, including declines in home values.

"What is the max that we can expect?" Tobin asked, referring to the "worst-case scenario" on costs to towns.

The information sessions resume Thursday, starting with a meeting from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the library of Kittredge Elementary School in Hinsdale. At 7 p.m., officials will brief residents in the cafeteria of Becket Washington School in Becket.

The meetings are open to all district residents, regardless of where they live.

Member towns are Becket, Cummington, Dalton, Hinsdale, Peru, Washington and Windsor.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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