School Building Committee co-Chairman Tom Callahan, left, with MSBA Executive Director Jack McCarthy. The old high school is in the background.
DALTON, Mass. — A traditional topping off ceremony was held on Thursday to mark the completion of the steel skeleton for what will be Wahconah Regional High School.
School officials gathered to mark the milestone with the sounds of construction and sparks from welding giving proof that their vision was being made reality after a long and arduous process.
"As far as this building goes, the process by which to make it happen to get the vote was an arduous one," said Principal Aaron Robb. "I would say that this building was willed into existence. Absolutely 100 percent willed into existence."
Robb had only been principal three days when news came that the high school had been accepted into the feasibility stage with the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The four-year process to get to Thursday was fraught with division as the seven towns in the Central Berkshire Regional School District last year weighed the worth of the $72.7 million project.
The new school passed narrowly by 88 votes, with three of the smaller towns voting against.
"Every vote mattered and every conversation behind that vote mattered," he said in convincing voters of the need to replace the obsolete and failing 60-year-old current high school.
"I'm a firm believer that the great communities rally around their youth, invest in their youth, and this particular community is an example of that," Robb said. "So this, over here is a monument to, quite frankly the investment that Central Berkshire — all seven towns — put into their youth."
School Building Committee Co-Chairman Richard Peters said he was one of those who had to be convinced. The School Committee member had volunteered to serve on the building committee with the intention of pressing for a renovation of the old school.
But, he said, he "got educated" by the consultants brought in by construction manager Skanska USA Building Inc. and Drummey Rosane Anderson Architects to talk about the history and future of education.
"And I completely flipped, I became a huge advocate for building a new school and not rebuilding this one because it was obvious that what we do in schools in the past are not what we will do in the schools in the future," he said.
The event, emceed by School Building Committee co-Chairman Tom Callahan, was smaller than normal largely to abide by social distancing. Officials had also eschewed a formal ground breaking, which should have taken place in March, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Peters said the disease had not slowed construction and there had been no issues on site. If anything, the building may be moving along faster because the old Wahconah is not being used.
A new parking area was completed in the front of the old building and the large parking was able to be used for staging, allowing the steel structure to go up quickly.
The new $58 million school is expected to open for fall 2021; the old high school will be torn down.
Officials praised Skanska, DRA, Barr & Barr and their subcontractors and their workers.
"The moment they began working for our district they were always available, patient, helpful," Callahan said. "You are selling the project for us again, we thank you."
Callahan introduced several speakers, including School Committee Chairwoman Barbara Craft-Reiss, DRA President Carl R. Franceschi and MSBA Executive Director Jack McCarthy.
McCarthy noted that the MSBA was supporting the project to the tune of about $30 million and called out the district's representatives — state Rep. Paul Mark and Sen. Adam Hinds — as being strong advocates.
He spoke of how the topping off ceremony as a Scandinavian tradition "to pay some tribute to the wood spirits" by setting a small tree on a completed construction. In America, despite the advent of steel, the topping off continues to use a small fir with the addition of an American flag.
He lead the gathering in applause for the steelworkers "because this is really celebrating their completion" and reiterated Callahan's appreciation for the professionalism of the contractors working on the project.
"I just want to say that I expect this job to be done on time and on budget," McCarthy said. "And I'm confident in saying that because that's what those three groups do for us all over the commonwealth."
Superintendent of Schools Leslie Blake-Davis thanked a long list of people for helping the project get this far.
"It started with a vision and through a collective community effort, our vision is becoming a reality," she said. "The walls that are going up are a testament to our commitment to providing inclusive learning spaces for all of our students.
"We believe in creating opportunities for our students that will allow them to pursue their goals and dreams I am so proud to be an educational leader in this community and I am so grateful for the all the tireless hours and hard work that occurred to make this happen."
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