Pitch on behalf of new Wahconah Regional nears key month
DALTON — Early next month, proponents of building a new Wahconah Regional High School will make their case in person for state backing, then wait only weeks for the verdict.
Securing reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority is critical to the plan backed in August by the Central Berkshire Regional School Committee and submitted to the state this month.
"It's getting busy," said Superintendent Laurie Casna. "It's tighter on the timelines, which is good because it's moving."
Casna will travel Oct. 10 to the authority's office in Boston, joined by Principal Aaron Robb and Shawn Therrien, a science coordinator at the high school and member of the Wahconah School Building Committee.
Helping to make the case for support that day will be the architectural firm of Drummey Rosane Anderson and the project manager, Skanska USA. That's the same team that recently completed a new Taconic High School in Pittsfield.
At stake now is the authority's readiness to cover roughly 54 percent of the $70.8 million to $74 million cost of the school envisioned to replace Wahconah, which opened in 1961.
The authority is scheduled to vote up or down Oct. 31 on the Wahconah project.
While vital, state approval must be backed up next spring by a vote of residents across the seven-town district.
Casna said Therrien will attend the Oct. 10 meeting with the authority to help explain how the building committee shaped guidelines for the kind of school that lines up with teaching needs as defined today.
"They asked a lot of questions about our educational plan," Casna said.
She credited Therrien with being a key author of that document.
Robb said he'll go to Boston ready to respond to concerns about the educational plan.
"It gives the board an opportunity to ask any questions and to do any vetting before they vote on a preferred design," Robb said.
Since the local committees took their votes, Robb says he's received public support for a new Wahconah, but acknowledged he is mainly in touch with families that have school-aged children.
"The vibe I get from that crowd is a very positive one," the principal said. Time will tell whether the district as a whole gets behind the project. "I think it comes down to who shows up to vote," Robb said.
In backing the proposed school's design, members of the building committee rejected the option of renovating the current school off Old Windsor Road.
Instead, citing the longer disruption of a remodeling project, they chose to place a new 123,000-square-foot building elsewhere on the school grounds.
A renovation project would also have been eligible for partial state reimbursement. But committee members found that the cost of creating an addition and renovating portions of the existing building would have run between $65 million and $81 million.
Casna says officials opted for a new building for at least four reasons: the ability to fulfill their educational vision for Wahconah, savings on operating costs, better long-term value and minimal disruption to students and staff.
The district's member towns are Becket, Cummington, Dalton, Hinsdale, Peru, Washington and Windsor.
The road to the authority's Oct. 31 decision has been long.
Officials with the district have expressed interest in conducting a feasibility study each year for the past decade. It made the cut in December 2015, starting a process that included a district vote last year to shoulder the cost of that feasibility study.
If the authority blesses the project, more detailed costs will be ready by January or February, the project architect has said.
It would then be up to residents of the towns to vote next spring.
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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