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Pittsfield Council Approves Funding For Taconic High School, Championed As Economic Generator

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Jim Levulis
/
WAMC

The Pittsfield City Council unanimously approved borrowing nearly $121 million for the construction of a new high school Tuesday night. Those in the standing-room only crowd cheered, applauded and released balloons when the 11 yes votes came in.The council’s vote marks a major milestone in Pittsfield’s decade-long discussion over a new Taconic High School. Jason McCandless is superintendent of Pittsfield Public Schools.

“I think the message it sends is that we really believe that Pittsfield’s best days are still ahead of it,” McCandless said after the vote. “That our best days did not leave town when General Electric left town.”

The state is expected to reimburse about 65 percent of the project’s cost, meaning Pittsfield would pay $40 to $45 million. The building will replace the roughly 50-year-old Taconic High School building, which has been prone to leaky roofs and poor heating. The new three story, roughly 245,500-square foot school will be built across the driveway from the current structure on Valentine Road. It will feature air conditioning, LED lighting, classroom clusters, flex space and vocational shops. Mayor Dan Bianchi says the training in those shops will be an economic generator.

“It will be the best pathway to the middle class for many of the children who come from our economically-challenged families,” Bianchi said before the vote. “It will also be one of the best economic initiatives that a community to ever engage in. It will allow Pittsfield to create a true and strong partnership with the small and medium-sized companies that are the backbone of this community.”

Some 175 vocational students from the city’s other high school, Pittsfield High, are expected to join Taconic’s ranks once the new school opens. Mayor Bianchi has said a new Taconic could also stem the tide of Pittsfield students choicing out to other schools at an annual cost of $2.4 million to the city. School leaders also expect 100 students from other districts to choice in, bringing with them $1.7 million in tuition. Councilor Jonathan Lothrop called his approval the easiest but most important vote in his nearly 12 years on the council.

“So we’ve got to do this as a future offering to our children and grandchildren,” Lothrop said. “This is the intergenerational commitment that we make today. It’s not about whether my children will benefit. It’s about will my children’s children benefit. Will all of our children benefit.”

Many in the business community, including the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, have endorsed the project while some residents have raised concerns about the impending impact on taxpayers, especially seniors on fixed incomes. The council will later decide how to bond the funding that determines the tax impact. School leaders estimate renovating Taconic would cost $36 million with little to no state funding. Councilor Lisa Tully says when she took office in 2014 she questioned how she could pass the increased taxes of a new high school onto the city’s residents.

“This isn’t an all or nothing project,” Tully said. “It doesn’t mean that if we say ‘no’ to this project that the taxpayers aren’t going to have to pay more to fix Taconic. If you take a $100,000 home we’re talking $20 more a year to have a brand new high school – that is so worth it.”

The Massachusetts School Building Authority is set to vote on the project June 3rd. If approved, construction work is expected to start next spring with the school opening for the 2018-2019 school year.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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