‘A deeply divided district’: Four of seven towns vote against $72 million regional HS

  • A rendering of the proposed Wahconah school building project in the Central Berkshire Regional School District. SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 4/19/2019 4:21:48 PM

CUMMINGTON — Officials in Cummington say that they are waiting for the dust to settle now that the plans to build a new $71.8 million Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton have been approved by a popular vote in the Central Berkshire Regional School District.

Select Board member Bill Adams said that the timing and outcome of the vote could not have come at a worse time for Cummington. The town is currently in the process of leaving the regional school district and cannot afford a 30-year debt service for a school building in a district that will no longer be serving the town, he said.

“The whole process has been very stressful and we need to discuss how we will handle what has happened, and how to move forward positively,” Adams said. “It still has to be hammered out how we are going to pay for this and it’s really consuming us up here trying to figure this all out.”

Cummington has been trying to withdraw from Central Berkshire Regional since the district closed Berkshire Trail Elementary School in 2015.

While the district voted two years ago to allow Cummington to begin to withdraw, the town and the district have not been able to agree on exactly how much it will cost the town to pull out of the regional agreement.

Central Berkshire Regional is seeking $1.5 million to cover the cost of the town’s withdrawal, Adams said, while town officials believe that they owe no more than $480,000 to $575,000.

However, that is not the only dollar amount that hangs in the balance.

Josh Wachtell, a member of the Cummington Education Committee, said that it also remains unclear exactly what the town might owe for the new school building project.

“We haven’t gotten an answer about what our obligation will be when we get out of the district,” Wachtell said. “We certainly don’t think that we should be on the hook with a 30-year debt for a school we aren’t part of.”

Both Adams and Wachtell have been critics of the way that voting on the school building project has occurred.

On April 6, residents in the district’s seven member towns approved the plan by a margin of 88 votes, with 1,785 votes in favor and 1,697 against.

Traditionally, capital projects have always had to be unanimously supported by all of the member towns in the district. However, like the vote for the school building feasibility study in April 2017, this vote was a popular vote which required approval from the majority of voters in all seven towns, a change the district says was made under a provision of state law.

That procedure and its outcome has left a decidedly bad taste in the mouths of officials in Cummington, as well as the three other towns that did not support the proposal.

Cummington came out against the new school by a margin of 194 to 45 votes, as did Hinsdale at 334 to 246, Peru at 162 to 102, and Windsor at 139 to 93.

Dalton, the largest of the district’s towns, supported the proposal by a vote of 1,011 to 737, while Becket residents were 176 to 77 in favor and Washington passed the proposal by a margin of 112 to 54 votes.

Wachtell said that the outcome is not good for Cummington or the smaller towns that will really struggle to pay for the project.

“On a broader scale, I thought this was the worst vote the district could have had,” Wachtell said. “They got the school but at what cost? Four of the seven town’s don’t want to go forward with the project.”

Wachtell pointed out that the proposal would have soundly failed had the vote been taken on a town-by-town basis rather than a popular vote.

“Then they could have come up with something that all the towns could have gotten behind and been happy with, but now they are a deeply divided district,” he said. “I can’t see how this can be good for them, going down the road.”

Adams said that there has “been some conversation between the four towns that voted no on the project as to what options we may have moving forward,” but that at this point he has not heard of any plans or suggestions.

Adams said that requests for mediation to reach an agreement on the town’s financial responsibility for withdrawing from the district have, thus far, been turned down by Central Berkshire Regional.

“It is disappointing and it is a very tough spot to be in,” he said.




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