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Winchester

Taxpayers will be asked to pay bulk of $131.9m school project

 Winchester Highs enrollment has climbed 36 percent over the past 17 years. A proposed renovation would accommodate 1,370 students, and include a new dining common area.

SMMA artist renderings

Winchester Highs enrollment has climbed 36 percent over the past 17 years. A proposed renovation would accommodate 1,370 students, and include a new dining common area.

A proposed $131.9 million overhaul of Winchester High School that could add $800 to the average annual property tax bill might be a tough sell in a town where that bill already is approaching $10,000 annually.

School and town officials conceded that the cost of the project — which would be funded in part by the state — will face opposition even in a town known for its support of education.

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“I think there is going to be sticker shock when they see the price tag,” said Bob Deering, chairman of the Educational Facilities Planning and Building Committee, which is overseeing the project.

William H. McAlduff Jr., the school superintendent, estimated that the project would end up costing taxpayers $85 million to $90 million. The Massachusetts School Building Authority board on Oct. 2 will decide whether to provide partial reimbursement — projected to be 34 percent — for the project, which involves major renovations and construction of three additions to the 42-year-old building on Skillings Road.

Additional reimbursement from the state agency might be awarded based on meeting criteria such as green features in the project design.

Residents still would need to appropriate the full $131.9 million project budget and then approve a debt exclusion — or temporary tax increase — in votes this fall.

Attempts to increase taxes have had mixed results in recent years. In January 2011, voters approved a debt exclusion to fund the town’s $18 million share of the Vinson-Owen school project. But that March, they rejected a $1.44 million Proposition 2½ override to fund operating expenses, and last June, they turned down a $350,000 override to create a technology fund.

‘There is support to get something done.’

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From 2007 to 2013, the average property tax bill for a single-family home in Winchester climbed 26 percent, from $7,803 to $9,839, as the average assessed value increased at a much lower rate, from $755,415 to $770,456.

“There’s a lot at stake,” McAlduff said. “It’s an opportunity for the town to collaborate with the state on sharing some of the costs. We are going to work hard and hopefully when people vote, they will vote having made an informed decision.”

The appropriation request will come before the Nov. 4 Town Meeting, followed by a townwide vote on the debt exclusion at a special election that is likely to be scheduled on the same day as the Dec. 10 special election to fill the Fifth District congressional seat.

The high school has undergone periodic upgrades, including $6 million in renovations in 2006. But officials said the facility has significant shortcomings.

Along with all the major building systems being outdated, McAlduff said the building does not meet federal standards for handicapped access and “we are running out of space.”

The school’s enrollment has climbed 36 percent over the past 17 years, to about 1,180 this year. The number is expected to increase to 1,350 by about 2020. The new school is designed for 1,370 students.

The proposed renovations would include upgrades to the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems; replacing the roof and windows; asbestos abatement; and improved handicapped access, security, and fire and earthquake protection.

A rendering of the proposed dining area at Winchester High School.

SMMA

A rendering of the proposed dining area at Winchester High School.

One of the three additions would enclose the existing outer courtyard to house a new dining common and part of an expanded media center. Another would house a new music suite that would include band, chorus, and small practice rooms. The third would house offices.

The project also would involve site work, including campus roads, and the addition of pedestrian pathways, handicapped ramps, new lighting, landscaping, and parking.

Since 2000, Winchester has built a new $28 million Vinson-Owen Elementary School; completed projects to renovate and expand the middle school; renovated the Lincoln Elementary School; and constructed a new Ambrose Elementary School.

Town manager Richard C. Howard, who supports the high school plan, said that “economic conditions being what they are, it’s a tough thing to forecast” if residents will approve the project.

“I don’t think anyone doubts that a new or substantially restored high school is necessary,” he said. “The question is can they be convinced that this alternative is the best one.

“There is concern about the price tag, but there is support to get something done.”

Deering said the district would have liked to build a new school, but for various reasons — including size and site conditions — the locations it considered for a new school were not feasible or cost-effective.

“Given the alternatives we had, renovating and adding a little to the existing school makes for a good project,” Deering said. “It’s going to bring us into the 21st century, make room for additional enrollments, and take care of a lot of the HVAC problems.”

If approved, the project would start next spring and proceed in a phased schedule that would allow students to remain in the building. The overall project would be completed by the fall of 2017.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.
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