Town Meeting OK’s $130m for high school upgrades

A rendering of a renovated Winchester High School.
A rendering of a renovated Winchester High School.

Voters at Town Meeting on Monday overwhelmingly signed off on a $129.9 million overhaul of Winchester High School, setting the stage for a crucial townwide vote next month on financing for the renovation project.

By a vote of 153 to 5, members approved two articles for renovations of the 42-year-old facility at the meeting held in the high school auditorium.

One article appropriated funds for remodeling and construction; a second dealt with transfer of a 31,851-square-foot parcel for parking and athletics.


“This isn’t about real estate values or property taxes; it’s about providing a good education for our children,” said Heidi Rutstein-DiLeo, one of those who voted for the renovations. “And they’re not getting that in this kind of environment. This building is completely appalling. We need to fix it.”

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The Massachusetts School Building Authority has authorized up to $44.5 million to fund the upgrades, but that money is contingent on voters approving a debt exclusion — an increase in property taxes for the years it takes to pay off the town’s share of the costs — that could add up to $800 to annual property tax bills. That vote has been scheduled for Dec. 10.

Ahead of Monday’s vote, Winchester’s superintendent, William McAlduff Jr., told the packed auditorium that the high school — which opened in 1971 — has a leaky roof and an out-of-date heating and ventilation system, and much of the facility is out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Most of the infrastructure has reached the end of its life or is failing,” he said.

The school was built for 1,017 students, McAlduff said, but this year enrollment is at about 1,150, a figure that is projected to increase to 1,325 by 2017.


The proposed renovations would include upgrades to the electrical, plumbing, 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 built, including a 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.

The project also would include campus improvement such as new pedestrian pathways, handicapped ramps, street lighting, landscaping, and parking.

“Schools today must be a dynamic, robust environment,” Michael Schindelman, Winchester School Committee chairman, said at the Town Meeting. “This project is integral to the educational program moving forward.”

The handful of residents who voted against the high school renovations argued that raising taxes to pay for it would hurt elderly residents and others living on fixed incomes.


“The high cost of the project will be a hardship for many in town,” said Marion Crandall, one of the five residents who voted against the measures at Monday night’s meeting. “It will be borne by every household for 20 years.”

If approved, renovations would begin in the fall of 2014, and be mostly complete by the fall of 2016.

Supporters said that despite the financial burden of raising property taxes, they are willing to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for the high school’s upgrades.

“When you buy a house you have to take care of it, and this building needs a lot of care,” said resident Jim Ferguson. “We’re making an investment.”

From the outset, town officials said the project has been a hard sell with voters, even for a town that has historically been supportive of education spending.

In January 2011, voters approved a debt exclusion to fund the town’s $18 million share of the Vinson-Owen Elementary 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.

In the last six years, the average property tax bill for a single-family home in Winchester has risen 26 percent, from $7,803 to $9,839.

Residents already are shouldering a portion of the costs of the $28.3 million Vinson-Owen, which opened in September. The state’s School Building Authority is paying 40 percent — or $9.8 million — of the cost for the new school.

If voters approve the financing, the high school renovations would begin in the fall of 2014, and would be mostly completed by the fall of 2016.

Also at Monday night’s Town Meeting, residents voted to table a third article that called for constructing a culvert under Skillings Road’s athletic fields and other drainage improvements to alleviate flooding near the high school.

Town officials expect to take up that issue after the Dec. 10 override vote.

Christian M. Wade can be reached at