Towns that rejected Wahconah project weigh legal options

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DALTON — "Yes" votes prevailed April 6 when voters in seven towns faced the question of building a new Wahconah Regional High School.

But the "no" side isn't sitting still.

As Hinsdale moves toward a possible legal challenge of the vote, other towns in the Central Berkshire Regional School District that rejected the $72.72 million project are considering whether they, too, will object.

On Monday in the town of Peru, the Select Board will consider whether to ally with officials in neighboring Hinsdale, which has retained a law firm to explore a possible civil action against the way the district went about the vote.

The question passed by 88 votes, with Dalton, Becket and Washington voting in favor. But the project came up short in four towns, Cummington, Hinsdale, Peru and Windsor.

With the state pledging to pay $31.38 million of the new school's cost, the expense that falls to member towns will be $41.33 million. The overall vote was 1,785-1,697, with a 274-vote favorable margin in Dalton, where it passed 1,011-737.

As the largest town by far in the district, "yes" votes in Dalton were instrumental in passing the project. Dalton represents roughly two-thirds of Wahconah enrollment.

On Friday, officials in Windsor notified Superintendent Laurie Casna that they support steps Hinsdale is taking to challenge the vote, both on technical and ethical grounds. In a May 30 letter to the district, Vivian Mason, chair of the Hinsdale Select Board, assailed the district's decision to break from longstanding tradition by basing the school question on a majority of district voters, rather than on a majority of towns.

In the letter to Casna, Kim Tobin said the Windsor Select Board also contests the nature of the vote.

"Most objectionable is the disregard for the historical approval process that has been precedent since 1958," Tobin wrote. "It also disregards the mutually agreed to process for changing the regional agreement approved in 1984."

Tobin said that by changing the way the vote was decided, both for a feasibility study in 2017 and the actual project, the district undermined its credibility and lessened "the important voice of all of our towns and its residents."

"It also underscores the sense that residents in small communities matter less than others, and that our small towns are simply add-ons and an afterthought in the process," Tobin wrote.

In an interview Sunday, Tobin said the Windsor board stands with its neighbor in objecting to how the vote was taken.

"We're supportive of Hinsdale and the steps they're taking right now," Tobin said. She said her board represents public sentiment in Windsor, where the Wahconah vote lost, 93-139. "For many people, the vote `no' was due to the way the process was handled," Tobin said.

Still, due to other legal costs it is facing, the Windsor board voted recently not to engage in litigation on the question.

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At 6 p.m. Monday, Peru's top board will take up that same question. The panel's agenda says it will discuss the issue and may take a vote. The public meeting will be held in the Town Hall Community Center at 3 East Main Road.

Bonny DiTomasso, a Peru resident who served on the Wahconah Building Committee, said she hoped to get a chance Monday to speak about how a legal challenge would affect the school project, for which a contractor has already been chosen. Officials hope to have a new school ready to use in just over two years.

DiTomasso said she provided information on how the vote was taken to the Peru board, at its request.

Questions about the April 6 vote led Mason to file a formal written objection to the district in late May.

In that three-page letter, Mason questioned not only the shift from past protocol on how capital projects are approved, but technical failures as well.

After an executive session last week, her board notified the district that it had hired the law firm of Mead, Talerman & Costa to advise it on ways to challenge the outcome of the vote.

"The Town has yet to determine the action it may take in this matter but it remains concerned that inadequate notice was provided to District residents for this unprecedented process," the statement said.

By inadequate notice, the board is referring to its belief that the district failed to provide final wording for the April 6 ballot question to member towns at least 35 days before polls opened.

"Securing a loan under these circumstances would be improper," the statement said.

"Conversations are going on between the school folks and us," Mason said in an interview Sunday.

She noted that Windsor has weighed in with written objections. "It's not just Hinsdale any more," Mason said.

In her letter to Casna, Tobin asks that the district school committee "take a close look at the flawed process and take serious steps to repair the damage that has been done."

After raising questions about the nature of the vote, Tobin said towns did not get answers they needed.

"There's been no attempt to navigate or be diplomatic with other towns that voted no," she said Sunday. "We heard nothing after the vote."

Attempts to reach Casna Sunday were not successful.

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


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