LINCOLN — Residents of Lincoln this week were asked to approve a $2 million school repair bond and a budget for the coming year that features higher spending than last year.
The fact that townspeople had rejected the same bond proposal in January raised the stakes even higher.
In paper balloting on the school budget at town meeting Monday night and in Australian balloting on the bond Tuesday, Lincoln voters gave the Lincoln Community School a new breath of life.
Residents solidly backed the school board’s proposed 2011-2012 school spending plan of $1,733,545, which represents an increase from the current year of $124,010, or 7.7 percent. The paper ballot vote on the lion’s share of the school budget was 156 in favor and 38 opposed.
The margin was closer on the bond, but still not very close. With 64 percent of voters on the Lincoln checklist casting ballots, the bond passed with 359 in favor and 274 against.
“I was thrilled,” LCS Principal Tory Riley said on Wednesday morning. “It affirmed the town’s commitment to the vibrant teaching we have at this school.
“Education costs money, and people here have a strong commitment to it.”
Riley credited change in the town’s acceptance of the bond to the hard work of school board members to get out over the last two months to explain the bond, and to the local residents who took their stewardship of the school seriously.
“There were way more conversations around town on this,” Riley said. “I had a very civic-minded person say to me there was never an issue where he did so much research.”
LCS has 111 students, about the same as it has been for the last few years, and a level at which it is expected to stay for the next few. The core of the building was build by community members in 1954 on the site of another school that had been destroyed by a fire.
About every two decades Lincoln residents have undertaken major upgrades to their school building, with an addition added in the early 1970s and a temporary wing, known as the “caboose,” added in the early ’90s.
But it was anything but clear whether townspeople would be willing — or could afford — to repair the building’s aging infrastructure. Riley described at Monday’s school meeting how teachers at an in-service meeting in the LCS multi-purpose room endured 52-degree temperatures because of poor ventilation.
Having already rejected the school bond once, residents — when asked to support increased spending at Monday’s meeting — wanted some answers.
Barbara Rainville asked why, rather than floating a bond, the school board didn’t just ask in the budget, for instance, for $300,000 to repair what needed to be immediately fixed.
School board member Henry Wilmer said an additional $300,000 in the budget would mean an 11-cent increase in the property tax rate. Then, if there was nothing to repair next year, the property tax would fall, only to jump dramatically when another piece of infrastructure failed and another big infusion of repair money was needed.
Officials presented a list of repairs expected in the next three to five years: heating and ventilation system; roof; the “caboose”; siding, windows and doors; and the driveway and drainage.
“We have all these expenses coming,” Wilmer said. “So (if you pay for them year to year), you have taxes going up and down and up and down.”
Also, the additional expense each year would have to be OK’d by the Vermont Department of Education, and if it wasn’t approved, it could count against Lincoln’s per-pupil spending, possibly resulting in penalties assessed by the state and even higher property taxes, school board members explained. As it stands, only a portion of the bond funds used for repairs will count against per-pupil spending.
So addressing the repairs in a piecemeal fashion could cost more in the long-term, school board member David Venman said.
A flyer distributed by the board explained how the specific type of bond Lincoln would get in this instance would save additional money. The QSCB bond comes with a 1 percent interest rate for 16 years, while a traditional bond currently carries an estimated 3.9 percent interest rate. And, by putting semi-annual payments into a sinking fund where it collects interest at a rate greater than 1 percent, the town conceivably could make money on the deal, the flyer indicated.
“It’s the deal of a lifetime,” Wilmer said.
Resident Alan Kaman, who has had two children go through LCS, brought up the elephant in the room when he brought up the issue of consolidating the Lincoln school with an elementary school in a neighboring town.
“It should still be considered,” he said. “Is it the building that made the kids do well or was it the teachers? If we consolidated with Bristol, I think the teachers would go with them.”
School board members said they believed the community would change without a school within its borders, that families with young children would not choose to live there.
Board member David Venman said that Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca, a champion of school consolidation, is not looking to close schools like LCS.
“Vilaseca told us that schools like Lincoln are not on the horizon for consolidation,” Venman said. “It was for high schools of 50 students.”
Some residents wondered if the school budget couldn’t be lowered a little more. School board member Donny Sargent reminded those at the meeting that they had been cutting costs for years.
“I don’t know where the money would come from,” Sargent said. “We’ve wiped out pretty much everyone we could and still have a functioning school. We have no classroom assistants … except in kindergarten.”
After that, the budget passed. The next day, the bond passed.
Riley said an exact timeline for work on the school has yet to be worked out, but they were hoping to get some work started this summer and ideally would complete all the renovations over 15 months.
She plans to speak with the LCS students about what this week’s votes mean during the school’s weekly assembly on Friday morning. Riley, herself, is excited to focus on the essence of her job.
“At this point I’ll be able to devote much more time to educational leadership,” she said.