Residents approve building new Wahconah Regional by 88 votes

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DALTON — Voters on Saturday narrowly backed a plan to build a new Wahconah Regional High School, overcoming concerns about its $41.33 million cost to local taxpayers and paving the way for a new school by fall 2021.

The measure passed in three of the seven towns of the Central Berkshire Regional School District, according to results provided by town clerks. Since the tally was by popular vote, the total was enough to advance the project.

The proposed school received 1,785 votes in favor in the towns, and 1,697 against.

"We are thrilled the vote has passed," said Superintendent Laurie Casna. "We are very grateful for all the support we received."

Dalton led the way in approving the project by a vote of 1,011-737. Also saying yes were Becket, 176-77, and Washington, where residents voted 112-54 in favor.

The proposal came up short in Cummington (45-194), securing just 18.8% support. The margin was closer in Hinsdale (246-334), Peru (102-162) and Windsor (93-139), where approval ranged from 38 to 42%.

But the project won big in Becket, which was the last town to report results Saturday. That community's nearly 70% approval reversed what had been an 11-vote gap standing in the way of passage as of 6 p.m.

"I am very much for having schools that serve students well, and this one doesn't," Maria Wallington, of Becket, said of the project, sitting outside the polls with a sign promoting her candidacy for Select Board, which advanced in caucus voting along with that of rival Christopher Swindlehurst. "The kids should not have to wait."

But others interviewed Saturday questioned whether they can afford the borrowing their towns will take on to pay their obligations to a new Wahconah. Each community must find its own way to finance its share.

"We're going to be hurting if it goes through," said Becky Scott, of Peru, who voted no. "Why would you build a new school when enrollment is going down? We don't need it."

Though the overall cost is $72.72 million, the Massachusetts School Building Authority will reimburse $31.38 million of that.

Some voters interviewed Saturday objected to the district's use of a popular vote, after earlier regional decisions were decided on town-by-town votes. If that had been the case Saturday, the question would have failed.

The Select Board in Cummington, in a March letter to Casna, criticized use of the popular vote but was rebuffed in a response from the district committee.

Cummington resident Josh Wachtel said he voted no in part because of the way the vote was conducted."The town-by-town vote is more democratic," Wachtel said.

"There are going to be big problems with this for 50 years," he said outside the town's Community House.

In Becket, resident Bob Ronzio stood in solidarity with Cummington, roughly an hour away in the state's second-largest school district geographically. "I don't think this should have been done this way," said Ronzio, who voted against the project.

The cost that individual towns will shoulder for the new Wahconah is proportional to the number of students they send.

Because Becket represents just 23 students among Wahconah's current enrollment of 459, it will pay 5% of the project's cost.

In Becket, property owners will pay 24 cents more for every $1,000 of assessed value, or $62.13 a year. Their costs will be moderated by the town's relatively large property tax base of $503 million, due to the presence of second homes.

In Peru, which has only three more students at Wahconah this year, the impact of a $1.53 increase in the tax rate will be larger. That's because Peru's property tax base is $90.5 million, less than one-fifth the value of Becket's.

Dalton, which has 306 students enrolled, will pay 66.6% of the cost of the new school, pushing the tax rate up $2.66 per $1,000 of assessed value. The owner of a home of average value, $210,742, will see a tax increase of $560.76 a year, according to figures provided by the district. Though Dalton is home to nearly four times more people than Becket, its tax base is $612 million, only one-fifth larger than Becket's.

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"The towns are not equally affected," Ronzio said.

That and other concerns led the finance committees in Dalton and Hinsdale to recommend that the project be rejected. Both panels cited other looming expenses their communities face.

Dalton's Select Board backed the new school in a 4-1 vote, but only after leaders fretted about their municipal balance sheet.

In Dalton, 57.8% of residents said yes.

Voters' views

Visits to all of the district's towns Saturday found people on both sides of the question, some hoping to do right by students, others worried about costs.

In Windsor, which saw voters come through one a minute in the election's first hour, Patricia and Tim Crane supported the school.

"It's a vote for the strength of a community," Patricia Crane said.

In Hinsdale, the stream of voters was steady through the day, poll workers reported.

Down Route 8 in Washington, election worker Jodi Hostetter said voters turned out early, as they also did in Dalton. Washington saw 63 voters come through in the first hour, in keeping with what Town Clerk Allison Mikaniewicz called a tradition of voter engagement in the town.

A little after 3 p.m., resident Sarah Lee Guthrie came out of Town Hall to continue her Saturday, having said yes to a new Wahconah.

"I want to be proud of where my children go to school," she said. "We absolutely need to invest in education — and that we come together and put our funds into something we believe in for our kids.

Washington residents will see their tax rate rise 91 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. That's expected to increase taxes on a town property with an average assessment of $267,900 by $243.28 a year. The town has 14 students at Wahconah this year and is responsible for 3% of the project cost.

Casna and other Central Berkshire officials will meet Wednesday with the school building authority, when that state body is expected to vote to move the Wahconah project ahead.

After finishing her own tally of vote results Saturday, Casna was upbeat.

"There was an immense amount of effort and hard work on behalf of this project by all involved," she said. "It is a great day for the [district] community, especially for our students."

Turnout was highest in Becket, where 54.2% of registered voters participated. It was lowest in Windsor, with a turnout of 34.4%.

The margin in favor of passage was highest in Becket (69.6%), followed closely by Washington (67.5%).

Voters were least supportive in Cummington (18.8%), which is seeking to withdraw from the district. In 2017, the town also rejected a request to approve $850,000 for a feasibility study, though that request passed in a similar popular vote throughout the district.

Of the towns that rejected the new school proposal Saturday, the percentage of that vote ranged from 38.6 in Peru, to 40 in Windsor to 42.4 in Hinsdale.

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


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