Pitch, pushback on new Wahconah proposal: A toolkit for voters

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DALTON — Amid debates over building a new Wahconah Regional High School, this much is known: By nightfall Saturday, voters will have said whether they are willing to invest millions of local tax dollars.

Polls in all seven towns of the Central Berkshire Regional School District will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. If a majority of voters across the towns agree, it will be full-speed ahead on a project to erect a new school on Old Windsor Road in Dalton.

If voters say no, state law allows the district to put the same question to them a second time.

For those just tuning in, the following is a look at the road to Saturday's vote, drawn from a review of project plans, remarks at public forums and interviews with residents and district and municipal officials.

What's on the ballot?

Residents in district towns will be asked to support covering their share of the cost of a proposed 123,000-square-foot building that would be able to enroll 460 students in grades nine through 12. The existing school, which opened in 1961, would be leveled.

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

The design is meant to provide an educational setting more in tune with teaching in the 21st century, one emphasizing collaboration among learners. It would replace a facility educators say is outmoded and in need of costly repairs.

A commons area would serve as "the heart of the school," according to the project's architect Carl Franceschi of Drummey Rosane Anderson Inc. in Waltham.

Why do this now?

District officials have wanted to address physical problems within the school for a decade. The district made the cut with the Massachusetts School Building Authority in 2015, starting a process that included a local vote in 2017 to shoulder the cost of a feasibility study.

That inquiry led building committee members to opt last August to pursue erecting a new building rather than renovating and expanding the current one.

Shortcomings of the current building, district officials say, include a lack of space for science, music and other instruction, including language labs, as well as badly out-of-date locker rooms, handicapped accessibility limits, environmental hazards and problems with heating and cooling systems. They warn that a growing list of problems will be expensive to fix and argue that taxpayers will get the most value by creating a new school for current and future generations.

Following the high school's opening in 1961, five classrooms were added to its southwest wing in 1971. Four years later, two prefabricated classrooms were added to the west wing. Renovations and improvements were made in 2010, but those did not address problems that educators say affect the building's suitability for modern education.

What will it cost?

The project cost is $72,721,107, including $850,000 in feasibility study money approved in 2017. Of that full cost, the state will reimburse $31,382,935. Though the district's reimbursement rate is nearly 60 percent, not all project costs are eligible for that assistance. The cost to the district would be $41,338,172.

Dalton would pay the most because it enrolls the most Wahconah students — 306 this year, compared to 11 from Cummington. Town shares of capital expenses are based on relative enrollments, with Dalton responsible for 66.6% of costs.

The tax impact on property owners in member towns has been estimated as the following, based on average home prices and borrowing at 4% interest over 30 years:

- Becket, average yearly tax bill increase of $62.13 based on home value of $255,700

- Cummington, average yearly tax increase of $117.31 based on home value of $257,700

- Dalton, average yearly tax increase of $560.76 based on home value of $210,742

- Hinsdale, average yearly tax increase of $198.91 based on home value: $199,500

- Peru, average yearly tax increase of $290.82 based on home value of $190,300

- Washington, average yearly tax increase of $243.28 based on home value of $267,900

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- Windsor, average yearly tax increase of $252.45 based on home value of $276,400

Why build anew?

The Wahconah Building Committee reviewed 13 options, from a "base repair" of the existing facility to renovation or new construction. Last August, members chose to submit a plan to build a new school, preferring that option for several reasons.

Superintendent Laurie Casna says a new building is the best way to fulfill the district's vision for the way it wanted to educate students. A new building, she said, would also save on operating costs, be a better long-term value and result in less disruption to students and staff. She said this week she believes there is strong public support for that decision.

Franceschi, the architect, says the current school does not provide adequate spaces for learning, due in part to its undersized classrooms and gym. He notes that large costs of renovation, including use of temporary classrooms, would not be eligible for state reimbursement. However, other costs from a renovation project would have been eligible for partial state reimbursement. Two proposals for renovation that the district shared with the building authority came in at $64.9 million and $81.9 million, the latter nearly $9 million more than the new building proposed.

For Franceschi, those costs raised the question of "value." Even after spending $64.9 million — about $8.3 million less than a new school — the renovated and expanded school would still not fulfill the vision laid out in the educational plan shaped by Principal Aaron Robb.

Robb says the renovation option was explored. "We didn't jump to the idea of new construction," he said this week.

Aside from the cost, the building committee did not like the idea of having to repair and expand Wahconah while continuing to educate students. The renovations would take three years. By contrast, the new building could go up in 18 months.

Casna said the plan going to voters Saturday incorporates ideas gathered from "visioning" sessions held during the 2017-18 school year. Those sessions briefed residents on price ranges for the array of options still under consideration. She said residents seemed to embrace the logic of starting fresh.

The case against?

In forums, online posts and letters to the editor, some residents have questioned whether district towns can afford to tackle Wahconah's problems, even with $31.38 million in state help.

Both the Dalton and Hinsdale finance committees voted not to back the project. The Hinsdale Select Board also voted not to support it, with members Viv Mason and Rich Kardasen concluding that, as much as they'd like to recommend the project, they decided their town could not afford the expense. Both said Hinsdale faces other significant expenses, including the cost of properly capping its former landfill and caring for local roads. The Dalton Select Board voted to support the project in a split 4-1 tally.

Apart from town finance concerns, others have expressed worry about the impact of rising property taxes on residents, particularly those on fixed incomes.

Some critics of the project question the cost estimates of the "base repairs" to the school, suggesting they were inflated to enhance the attractiveness of building a new school. According to the project architect, those costs in the next five to 10 years include a roof replacement ($3 million); upgrading doors, windows and exterior walls ($7.8 million); replacing the heating and ventilation system ($6 million); upgrading fire alarms ($5.3 million); installing a new sprinkler system ($1 million); upgrading handicapped accessibility ($5.7 million) and dealing with "hazard materials" issues ($5.7 million).

Melissa Falkowski, assistant superintendent, said the estimates were provided not by the architect but by outside consultants.

Complicating factor

Last month, the Cummington Select Board said it wanted out of the whole affair. In a letter to district officials, the board asked to be spared any financial connection to a new Wahconah because the town is in the process of withdrawing from the district. The town has been at odds since the district closed its elementary school in 2015.

Barbara Craft-Reiss, chairwoman of the district school panel, responded in a letter March 19. In it, she declined all of the Cummington requests, saying the district would not delay the vote and defended its use of a popular vote to determine the outcome.

Cummington voters rejected the feasibility study in 2017, but their ballots did not prevent the measure passing by popular vote.

If rejected

If Saturday's vote fails, the district can try once more to win approval from taxpayers. But if it loses twice, the district must step out of line at the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which accepted the building committee's plans Oct. 31. Either way, district officials are scheduled to meet with the authority Wednesday.

The state offers an "accelerated repair" program for schools, but Casna and Falkowski said the district was deemed to be a better candidate for the track it is on today. Winning state aid for priority repairs would be "highly unlikely," Falkowski said.

If approved

If approved and built, the new school would open in the fall of 2021 for an expected enrollment of 460 students. Borrowing costs would begin to be felt around that time by taxpayers. The new building would sit just to the east of the existing school. After the new school is erected, the old structure would be taken down and its site remade into playing fields.

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


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