With nod to opponents, Wahconah project clears legal cloud

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DALTON — Officials with the Central Berkshire Regional School District went into closed session Thursday night to salvage their long-planned new high school.

By making two promises, the district's School Committee shook off a legal challenge from Hinsdale that stood in the way of borrowing for the $72.72 million new Wahconah Regional High School.

The committee late Thursday pledged that future votes on capital projects in the district will adhere to an agreement reached decades ago by its seven member towns.

That was promise No. 1. The committee also agreed that as work on the new school moves ahead, the district and its Wahconah Building Committee will trim project costs to lighten the taxpayer burden.

Those were the two conditions the Hinsdale Select Board set Wednesday. In exchange, that board agreed to drop plans to sue the district over the way an April 6 vote on the new high school was conducted.

"It was a lot of heartache, and probably wasn't necessary," Rich Peters, co-chairman of the building committee, told members of that panel Thursday afternoon, as he announced that the agreement was reached. "I think tonight I'll sleep well."

The bargain took shape in private talks between Hinsdale and district officials, including Barbara Craft-Reiss, chair of the district School Committee, and Laurie Casna, its superintendent.

Hinsdale's Select Board notified the district that it had retained a lawyer to challenge use of a majority vote of residents to decide the school project, rather than requiring support from a majority of member towns.

Four of the seven towns rejected the new school, but the measure passed by 88 votes, lifted by the 274-vote plurality in the district's largest community, Dalton. Cummington, Hinsale, Peru and Windsor said no. Becket and Washington joined Dalton in supporting the school, to be built on the current Wahconah grounds.

Hinsdale also flagged what it believed to be a technical failure by the district to provide ballot language by a deadline set in state law.

Peters, who lives in Hinsdale, noted that use of a majority vote was lawful and has been upheld in a court challenge on Cape Cod.

"We didn't really change the rules. We used a rule that was open to us," he said.

And the district did so, he said, because Cummington's effort to leave the district cast a shadow over the fate of a vote taken under the district's long-standing agreement.

But going forward, the district agreed Thursday night not to use the popular vote method for a capital project until member towns can consider amending the regional agreement, which dates back 60 years.

Casna, the superintendent, said the motion to seek ways to cut costs was, by design, a bit vague.

"It doesn't have a percentage on it; it doesn't have a number in it," she said Thursday, after a building committee session. The motion, as planned, was simply "to make fiscally responsible decisions."

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Hinsdale's request, though, was to seek cuts of 10 to 20 percent in the project's cost, Peters said. While it will be hard to hit that goal, Peters said he planned to pursue outside fundraising for aspects of the project not eligible for reimbursement by the state and might seek help from affluent residents.

Another way to reduce costs to taxpayers, he suggested, might lie with offering naming rights.

"It's kind of on me because I made the promise," Peters said, referring to the conditions outlined by Hinsdale. "It's a good-faith effort to make that happen."

Carl R. Franceschi, the architect handling the project for Drummey Rosane Anderson, cautioned that the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which is covering $31.38 million of the school's cost, should be consulted about the role that outside fundraising can play in construction financing.

Melissa Falkowski, the district's assistant superintendent, said declines in bond interest rates should help reduce borrowing costs.

"We'll see savings there," she said.

The district had planned to move to sell bonds in one to two weeks if the threat of litigation was removed, Falkowski said.

On Monday, the Peru Select Board voted not to join Hinsdale in pursuing legal action against the district, a development Peters credited to work "of the team here."

Earlier, Windsor's top board voted not to engage in a legal challenge, though its chairwoman, Kim Tobin, said the town agreed with Hinsdale's objections to the way the vote was taken.

Thomas Callahan, co-chairman of the building committee, said he believes talks over the past week helped reconcile people for and against the project.

"The word 'unity' was mentioned more as this went along," Callahan told the committee. "And the resentment started to fade away. Both sides were talking easily and comfortably."

And even laughing, he said.

With the legal challenge cleared, the district was hurrying this week to greenlight electrical work by Eversource on the site before school starts.

Construction will begin as early as possible next spring, Franceschi said, and continue to August 2021. After that, work will begin to demolish the existing school and transform its footprint into playing fields.

The cost of construction stands at $59,585,0390, Franceschi said, though it might come in under that amount. "Soft" costs, including fees and furnishings, add an additional $10,332,000, with $2,804,077 rounding out the budget as funding available for contingencies.

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


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