ANwSU eyes bond to fund projects at high school

VERGENNES — Voters in the five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union towns will almost certainly be asked in either November or March to support a $2 million Vergennes Union High School bond that could also, in theory, approach $5 million.
The $2 million, said ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien and business manager Kathy Cannon earlier this week, would pay for a long list of what they called long-term building needs and “health and safety” items.
That list includes new roofing, insulation and related work to the classroom wing, auditorium and middle-school gym; heating and ventilation upgrades to the auditorium and possibly the cafeteria; wiring upgrades to the kitchen and auditorium; and possibly new kitchen equipment.
That’s where the discussion began, O’Brien said.
“The primary motivation was and continues to be about health and safety,” he said.
The VUHS board, ANwSU administrators, school officials and architects also developed what O’Brien and Cannon called “a wish list” of improvements that could be included, with some clearly having higher priorities than others, according to the ANwSU officials.
Many items on that list focus on the auditorium, which they said was left behind during the school’s major 1999 renovation and expansion due to cost concerns.
“What they planned to do was pared down at the end,” O’Brien said. “Something like the auditorium, which they knew at the time needed attention, wasn’t able to be done.”
Now, in addition to better wiring and air handling, officials are considering whether to ask for upgrades to the theater’s sound, lighting and performance rigging systems, as well as installing a control room and an orchestra pit.
“In the auditorium it’s the move from not only health and safety issues, but also some of the performance pieces,” O’Brien said.
He does not necessarily expect the VUHS board to put forward all of those items, nor approve other items on the $2.2 million wish list, which also includes, for example, a $120,000 outbuilding and $100,000 for new classroom flooring.
“We already know we won’t do everything,” O’Brien said.
Cannon said, however, the board will look carefully at some of the items, possibly those that would enhance the auditorium.
“We might get to the point where the auditorium is unusable technically,” she said. “We also have a wonderful music program that people support.”
On top of the $2 million of base improvements and $2.2 million for the wish list, O’Brien has also asked the VUHS board to consider a running track that would surround the varsity soccer and lacrosse field and include a new artificial surface for the field.
The estimate for the track came in at $530,000, the turf for the field — which has historically had drainage problems — at $720,000, and lights for the project at another $64,000.
O’Brien said he is one of several in the Vergennes area who believe the track would serve not only the school’s track and field team (which practices in the school halls in winter and in bad weather), but also the community at large. He said many believe the common practice of using Route 7 to create an exercise loop is unsafe, and that private fundraising could help pay for a track.
“It would be a community piece as well, because of Route 7 walking and jogging,” O’Brien said. “It would provide facilities on school property for kids and members of the community that we don’t have and believe would be very useful, not only for the school, but for the community, the taxpayers as well.”
At the same time the VUHS board considers the facilities needs, the ANwSU officials said the board would have to consider the school’s core education program.
VUHS has faced pressure to control spending while enrollment declines, and state funding is still tied to the number of students in a school. In recent years the school has worked hard to avoid personnel cuts.
O’Brien said in the months to come the VUHS board will face a balancing act in handling conflicting needs and wants.
“There are several things, and I’m including the track in there, that would be nice to have, but are not absolutely necessary. So the balance that I would look at would be the health and safety, recognizing that it may impact (core programs), but it won’t impact (them) to the extent of all the would-be-nice items,” O’Brien said.
 Currently, payments on the 1999 project are adding about 10 cents a year to ANwSU towns’ school tax rates, before adjustments for common levels of appraisals (CLAs), and will do so until 2021.
Cannon said if, for example, ANwSU voters next March backed a $3.5 million project, then by 2014 about 4.5 cents would be added to tax rates.
O’Brien said it will be up to the VUHS board to consider residents, too, while balancing the school’s needs.
“The job of the board will be to determine how much of the project they need to do and can be afforded by the taxpayers,” O’Brien said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent

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