State board backs design plan for $70M new Wahconah Regional High School

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A key state agency agreed Wednesday to support building a new Wahconah Regional High School.

But it will still be up to residents of the seven-town Central Berkshire Regional School District to greenlight a $70.8 million to $74 million project.

Officials with the Massachusetts School Building Authority voted unanimously Wednesday to approve an architect's concept for a new school, after finding that the district's 1961 facility no longer meets educational needs and suffers from an array of building problems. 

"The new school will mean a better learning and teaching location for students and teachers," John K. McCarthy, the authority's executive director, said in a statement. 

Laurie Casna, superintendent of the district, was present for the Wednesday morning vote. 

She called it "good news" and said the vote by the authority allows the district to move to the next step of a long process — that of completing a full design. 

State Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg, who serves as chairwoman of the authority, said after the vote that approval lays the groundwork for Central Berkshire students to have "a top-notch learning environment." 

The architectural firm Drummey Rosane Anderson will prepare detailed plans for a building to replace the existing Old Windsor Road school.

In August, a building committee and the full Central Berkshire school board voted to accept plans for a new 123,000-square-foot building on the same grounds able to enroll 460 students in grades nine through 12.

The specific percentage of reimbursement from the authority will be determined after the project reaches the next stage. 

Earlier, as the district worked to determine the feasibility of either a new or remodeled school, the authority had assigned a reimbursement rate of 54.79 percent.

Maria Puopolo, the authority's director of external affairs, said the "eligible cost" to which a reimbursement rate will be applied will be identified in the next phase of the project. 

When asked whether the reimbursement rate rises or falls very much from the initial figure, she said many factors come into play.

But the cost picture will be clear by the time residents of the district towns go to the polls next year. Member towns are Becket, Cummington, Dalton, Hinsdale, Peru, Washington and Windsor.

Over the past decade, officials with the district repeatedly sought to study the feasibility of replacing the building. Their appeals to the state were granted in December 2015, kicking off a process that included a district vote in 2017 to pay for that study.

The project architect has said that more detailed plans, and costs, will be ready by February.

If approved, a new school would be erected while Wahconah Regional students continue to attend classes.

The school sits on about 41 acres a mile and a half east of Dalton center. After its opening in 1961, five classrooms were added to its southwest wing in 1971. Four years later, two prefab classrooms were added to the west wing.

Renovations and improvements were made in 2010, but those did not address problems that limit the building's suitability for 21st-century education, according to district officials. 

Those issues include lack of space for science, music and other instruction, including language labs, as well as badly out-of-date locker rooms, handicap-accessibility limits, and problems with heating and cooling systems. 

District officials hope to return to the authority for a full approval for work by next April, according to a timeline presented to the state board Wednesday.

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


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