Town's challenge to Wahconah vote remains under review

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DALTON — Officials proposing to build a new Wahconah Regional High School are pondering a challenge to next month's up-or-down vote.

Last week, the Cummington Select Board wrote to the superintendent of the Central Berkshire Regional School District requesting that officials alter terms of the April 6 vote.

Because Cummington is in the process of withdrawing from the seven-town district, its officials asked Superintendent Laurie Casna to spare the town a possible financial obligation to a new high school.

The March 8 letter to Casna asked for a response by March 21. Casna said she forwarded the letter to the district's School Committee. On Thursday, a leader of that panel said it will reply to Cummington.

Committee Vice Chairman Richard Lacatell, of Dalton, told fellow members that Chairwoman Barbara Craft-Reiss has discussed the request with the district's legal counsel.

"We will be responding very shortly to that letter," Lacatell said. He did not say when.

Craft-Reiss said after the meeting that the school district's attorney plans to research the question soon, very likely enabling the district to provide an answer to Cummington ahead of the April vote.

"I expect at the early part of next week we'll get a response," she said.

The Cummington letter asked the district either to postpone the Wahconah vote until Cummington's withdrawal is complete, exempt the town from any financial obligation or seek approval for a new school through a different application of state voting law.

After nearly two years of work, members of a districtwide Wahconah Building Committee opted last month to propose construction of an entirely new facility on the grounds of the Old Windsor Road school, now 58 years old. The full School Committee agreed.

The new school will cost $72.72 million, but the expense to the district will be lightened by the state's $31.38 million contribution. District towns will pay $41.34 million.

The April 6 vote will be decided by a majority of votes cast by residents in the district. Cummington officials say they prefer the district's tradition of deciding major capital expenditures by securing majority approval by member towns, not individual voters.

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On the separate question of Cummington's withdrawal from the district, Lacatell said no meetings have been held for 10 months. The town started that process after the district closed its elementary school in 2016.

Lacatell noted that Cummington has requested mediation to resolve issues that have held up progress, the largest of which is a dispute over how much the town should contribute to covering school district retirement benefits.

"We'd be very amenable to meeting with them on this issue," Lacatell said of the Cummington group handling the withdrawal question.

Lacatell said that aside from coming to terms on what's known as OPEB — which stands for other post-employment benefits — the district and Cummington must reach a transition agreement.

"One would think it would be more routine, but we haven't reached agreement on that," he said.

Casna said she and other district officials spoke recently by conference call with the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

"We are right on target, we've done everything we need," Casna said of the district's coordination with the authority.

With the vote less than a month away, Casna, Lacatell and others plan to meet with Dalton's Finance Committee next Wednesday.

Casna said she is willing to discuss the project with officials in any of the member towns.

"We are willing and able to go anywhere else," she said.

The vote will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 6.

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

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


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