Our Opinion: Approve new WRHS for students, district

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The Central Berkshire Regional School District confronts a defining moment Saturday when voters will accept or reject a proposal to build a new Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton. It is a decision that will impact not only future high school students in the district but the future of the member towns as well.

The plan produced by the Wahconah School Building Committee is for a $72.7 million school, with a grant from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) covering $31.3 million and the district paying $41.3 million through a 30-year bond. The MSBA requires a base repair option, which the committee estimated at $45 million, which reflects the building's considerable decline since it was built in 1961. A new building, with the state assuming 43 percent of the bill, would also include enhancements that reflect innovations based on new methods of classroom teaching that could not be incorporated in the current school. The new school would be built on school grounds over a period of 18 months while the district-funded repair option would severely disrupt the school over a three-year period.

For reasons that are economic and educational, the construction of a new school is the wisest choice. That is not to say that the concerns expressed about the financial burden on residents, in particular those of a low income or a fixed income, are not legitimate.

The seven member towns (Dalton, Becket, Cummington, Hinsdale, Peru, Washington and Windsor) will face yearly tax increases if the new school is approved, from Cummington's average of $117 to an average of $560 for Dalton, the town that has the highest student population at Wahconah. This would come at a time when member towns are addressing other projects both educational and non-educational, such as a likely sewer rate increase for district towns that share the Pittsfield sewer system, when the city institutes its overdue upgrades. While the state's contribution to funding enables new schools to be constructed, it does not make any special provision to help those of limited financial means living within a district that is undertaking a large school project. The providing of that assistance is something the Berkshire legislative delegation should pursue under the safe assumption that lawmakers across the state whose constituents are facing the same dilemma would be eager to assist.

But the reality is that voting against the new school is not going to relieve taxpayers in the seven district towns of an additional tax burden. The school is in such dire need of repairs that doing so would cost the district roughly $4 million more to make them than it would to fund the district's share of a new school. The problems at Wahconah are well-known to students, teachers and administrators. It will cost an estimated $6 million to replace a broken heating and ventilation system. The $5 million needed to upgrade fire alarms and the $1 million needed to install a new sprinkler system tells parents that the school doesn't protect their students sufficiently if a fire should break out. A upgrade of doors, windows and exterior walls would cost nearly $8 million. The list goes on.

These cans cannot be kicked down the road. It has been six years since an accreditation team from the New England Association for Schools and Colleges (NEASC) found that the Wahconah building was deficient in providing a good learning environment. NEASC can provide conditional accreditation while renovations are made or it can deny it altogether. Either way, accreditation, if jeopardized or loss, could have a damaging impact on students, in particular those who want to move on to college.

Along with state-of-the-art infrastructure, the school will provide a classroom cluster approach that encourages collaborative learning among teachers and students. This approach replaces the old "stand and deliver" methodology in which teachers lectured to students, but the classroom layouts will be flexible enough to accommodate this style when so desired. The school will provide a 550-seat auditorium and a full-sized gymnasium, in contrast to the close quarters of each in the current building.

There is certainly a loyalty to the current Wahconah Regional High School building among those in the district who graduated from the high school. That building, however, which was built and funded by previous generations, has outlived its time, and it is necessary now for current district residents to pay it forward to future generations of students. By doing so, they are also investing in their own towns. A new high school will be a draw for prospective residents and businesses, building the tax base so there is less of a burden for all. A new school tells people that the district is optimistic about its future, short- and long-term. There is no maintaining the status quo — the district and its member towns can either move forward or slide backward in a vain attempt to avoid addressing harsh realities.

The School Building Committee exhaustively and transparently explored the district's options, and has made a strong case for building a new Wahconah Regional High School. The new Wahconah, built with state financial assistance that may not be available again any time soon, will long serve the district's students and will benefit the district as a whole as well. The Eagle urges residents of the member towns to vote "Yes" to a new school on Saturday, and we urge our legislative delegation to seek ways to protect the district's most vulnerable taxpayers from burdensome increases.

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