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Winchester to decide on high school project

The Massachusetts School Building Authority has authorized up to $44.5 million in grants to help fund the $129.9 million overhaul of Winchester High School, one of five building projects the state board voted to fund Wednesday.

“We’re very excited,” said Winchester School Superintendent William McAlduff. “We think it is absolutely the right project, it’s coming at the right time for us, and it’s the right price.”

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Now taxpayers must decide whether to foot the nearly $90 million balance for the project. On Nov. 4, a Special Town Meeting will vote on whether to approve the total project budget; then residents will head to the ballot box to decide whether to accept a debt exclusion — an increase in property taxes for the years it takes to pay off the town’s share of the cost — that could add up to $800 to annual property tax bills. That vote is likely to be held Dec. 10.

The high school would be the most expensive building project the town has ever done, said Bob Deering, chairman of the town’s Educational Facilities Planning and Building Committee, which is overseeing the project.

“Put it this way: No matter which way the vote goes, I think it will be close, whether it’s for or against it,” said Deering. “It’s a tough sell. I think everybody involved realizes it’s a tough sell.”

In the last six years, the average property tax bill for a single-family home in Winchester rose 26 percent, from $7,803 to $9,839. Residents already are shouldering a portion of the costs of the $28.3 million Vinson-Owen Elementary School, which opened in September. The School Building Authority is paying 40 percent — or $9.8 million — for the new school.

The state on Wednesday voted to authorize up to $179.8 million in grants, including up to $53.6 million for a new middle school in Lynn; up to $42.6 million for a new high school in Winthrop; up to $11.5 million for a new elementary school in Newton; and up to $27.7 million for a new elementary school in the Athol-Royalston Regional School District.

Since its inception in 2004, the authority has spent nearly $10 billion on school projects, said state Treasurer and School Building Authority chairman Steven Grossman.

Winchester High School opened in 1971, and today has a leaky roof, an out-of-date heating and ventilation system, a lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and burgeoning enrollment, said Deering. The school was designed for 1,017 students, according to materials from the state; this year, the superintendent said, enrollment is at about 1,150 students, and is projected to hit 1,325 by 2017.

“The biggest thing we face is the increased enrollment,” said Deering. “The building is old and aging. Maybe you could live with that. But the enrollment is increasing, so you have to put the kids someplace.”

The proposed renovations would include upgrades to the electrical, plumbing, and heating and ventilation systems; replacing the roof and windows; asbestos abatement; and improved handicapped access, security, and fire and earthquake protection. Three additions would be added to the school, including a new music suite, offices, and an enclosure of the existing outer courtyard, which would house a new dining common and part of an expanded media center.

If the town does not vote to accept the tax increase, Deering said, the district will go back to the drawing board to try to scale back the project. According to a spokesman for the state School Building Authority, a district has 120 days to obtain local approval of funding for the entire project.

In the lead-up to the town’s vote, said McAlduff, the district will work to educate residents about the state of the school, offer tours, and post project information online at Winchesterhsproject.com . Even if the voters oppose the debt exclusion, he said, the high school will still need extensive repairs.

“Ultimately, it’s not a zero dollars or $85 to $87 million game,” he said. “There’s money that’s going to have to be spent . . . The community will be facing a real crisis regarding the high school building and other capital needs.”

If Winchester residents vote to fund the project, officials said, the district will begin drawing up detailed designs that will ultimately become construction drawings, and will include nitty-gritty details such as the colors of the walls and the types of windows.

If all goes according to plan, McAlduff said, construction will begin in September 2014, and will be mostly completed by September 2016, save for renovations to the gymnasium and auditorium, which will be completed by September 2017. Students would remain on site during construction, he said, some of them in classrooms and some in temporary trailers.

“A quality public school system is one of the anchors of the community,” said McAlduff. “The high school facility is the flagship building of all our schools.”

Globe correspondent John Laidler contributed to this report. Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.
com
. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.
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