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Bond rejection leaves fate of Lincoln school uncertain

LINCOLN — Plans for revamping the Lincoln Community School (LCS) facility were put on pause when the Vermont education commissioner rejected the school board’s $3 million-$4 million bond proposal early last week. The school board and Building Committee met on Wednesday to discuss possible next steps for the school.
The decision arrived in a letter written by School Construction Coordinator Cathy Hilgendorf on behalf of Commissioner Armando Vilaseca.
While those at Wednesday evening’s meeting rallied around the opinion that the commissioner’s response was lacking in explanation and fairness, many — including some who sat on the school Building Committee — gave a sigh of relief when the bond vote, originally scheduled for Nov. 2, was cancelled. The proposed plan, they felt, would cost more than most Lincoln residents are willing to pay and would likely have been voted down.
Committee member Mary Beth Stillwell summed up the general response to Vilaseca’s rejection,
“It feels like a slight beyond what we should be expecting,” she said.
Nevertheless, Stillwell admitted that she was “of the opinion that this was a giant proposal for this town at this stage and that scaling it back makes a lot of sense.”
As the committee began to discuss its next move regarding the LCS renovations, school board Chairman David Venman outlined the possibilities:
• Appealing the commissioner’s decision within the next 30 days.
• Resubmitting a scaled-back of the original bond proposal.
• Abandoning the original proposal, closing the school and sending Lincoln elementary students to Bristol.
• Recruiting students from places like Ripton, to bring into the Lincoln school system to bolster LCS finances.
Though members of the Building Committee — and the full school board — were torn as to which solution they should adopt, all agreed that the school should somehow be saved. They all took offense to the line in Hilgendorf’s letter indicating that the “available resources in nearby Bristol” had an impact on the commissioner’s decision.
Committee member Tommie Thompson spoke in favor of pursuing a Ripton merger in hopes that it would result in a reduction of the school’s per-pupil spending. The board has been particularly concerned about its spending as Lincoln is edging ever closer to being labeled a “gold town” by the state. Venman explained that the gold-town title is applied when a school goes above a certain point in its per-pupil spending, and unless a bond is secured prior to construction, the cost of any LCS building projects will be added into that calculation.
Without a bond, Venman said, moving forward on the building project is simply not financially feasible for the school.
“The state has required that all the schools make a 2 percent reduction across the board in educational spending for next year over what we did this year,” Venman said. “So, coupled with any expenses that might be spent on improvements, it makes the budgeting a daunting task for next year.”
But standing still is also out of the question, Venman stressed.
“The building needs some work — certainly that can’t continue indefinitely,” he said. “We need to address it somehow. One of the things that the Building Committee looked at, of all the various options we had, is the tax impact of doing nothing — not bonding — and just addressing things as they come up. But that risks making us a gold town if something really bad happens that we then need to fix. It’s just not a viable long-term option.”
But for the Lincoln school, this is old news. Principal Tory Riley explained that the school has been making upgrades on an as-needed basis for quite some time.
“We’ve been doing this for a number of years,” she said. “Because, as many of you know, we’ve been going through this process for four years. This isn’t new, and we’re not reacting right in this month to a crisis we just recognized. The Building Committee has been working on this for four years.”
Riley was disappointed that the committee couldn’t share its plan with Lincoln residents.
“It was a really challenging and arduous process, and I’m so respectful and appreciative of people like Kudd (Rood) and George (Truax) and lots of us who came to the conclusion that educationally, the $3.7 million proposal was really what was best for kids, even though it was so hard to swallow that amount of money,” Riley said. “And what I wish is that we had had an opportunity to show what that proposal was, because that whole proposal is really what would have made the space better, educationally, for kids and it really would have ramped up the programming that it would provide and now that’s out of the mix.”
The board did not reach a conclusion as to how it will proceed from here, but members did say they will attempt to gain more clarity from Commissioner Vilaseca on his specific reasons for rejecting their proposal.
Though the rejection of the bond proposal means going back to the drawing board, members of the Building Committee tried to find a silver lining.
“It took me a few days to get to the point of realizing the opportunity here,” Thompson said at the close of the meeting. “I don’t know if you guys are noticing, but most of the people who sat on the Building Committee are here tonight saying that they thought it was too big a proposal, which happened for a number of reasons, mainly because we got sidetracked looking at consolidation and our design period was very short and I’m realizing tonight that we almost had a consensus amongst the Building Committee that the project was too big, and I think that this is going to work out in our favor.”
Reporter Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].
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