Auditorium, track push VUHS bond costs up

VERGENNES — Vergennes Union High School board members, administrators, department heads and a dozen local residents on Monday heard details about what could be between a $5.7 million and $7 million project to upgrade the school, notably its auditorium and athletic facilities.
Board members both before and during a 90-minute public forum in the VUHS library spoke favorably about parts of the plan — including complete makeovers of the auditorium and kitchen, needed roofing and wiring upgrades, and a new track surrounding an artificial turf field — but said they had not begun to make final decisions.
“The entire board has not had a chance to discuss the entire project together,” said VUHS board member Neil Kamman.
Earlier in May, Addison Northwest Supervisory Union business manager Kathy Corcoran said if voters in the five union towns backed a $3.5 million project about 4.5 cents would be added to school tax rates, before adjustments for towns’ common levels of appraisal (CLAs).
On Monday, Cannon said a $5 million project would add about 6.5 cents, while a $7 million project would add 9.0 cents, also before CLA adjustments.
Those increases would mean hikes of $45, $65 and $90 in annual taxes per $100,000 of assessed home value, respectively, assuming homeowners were not eligible for rebates. Most ANwSU homeowners are eligible for property tax relief according to state statistics.
Big-ticket items are:
•  The auditorium, at about $1.53 million if the board includes all items — a control booth, all new seating including handicap-accessible seats at the front and rear, catwalks, extensive stage and orchestra pit renovations and upgrades, new heating and air conditioning with the equipment on the roof, new lighting and sound systems, new wiring, and modern fire protection.
•  The turf field and surrounding track, at a little more than $1.2 million for a smaller four-lane track that school officials were leaning toward on Monday, but without lights, bleachers and a storage building.
•  The kitchen, estimated at $626,000, including replacing the cooler and freezer that architects called “antiques” with an attached exterior unit, a new ventilating hood, a new layout, wiring and ventilation upgrades, and skylights.
One mandatory element, and one along with problems in the kitchen and auditorium that first triggered consideration of a bond, according to officials, is new roofing and insulation for the classroom wing and roof work to the middle school gym.
The proposal also considers smaller amounts for site work, including sidewalk repair and extension and paving the western parking lot; new floor coverings in classrooms; and new bleachers for the middle school gym.
Architect Colin Lindberg on Monday recommended the board get a “second round of price estimates with a professional estimator.” The price tags for single pieces of the project also do not include added costs for architectural and engineering fees, plus permitting and contingency costs that boost the final bottom line.
None present on Monday — including selectmen from each of the ANwSU towns and Vergennes Mayor Michael Daniels — said nothing should be done.
But opinions varied on how much work to bite off.
Former VUHS board member Rick Kerschner, a Ferrisburgh resident, said it is always difficult to measure public opinion because of poor meeting turnout. He suggested a bond that included everything except extra elements around the field, such as lighting and bleachers.
“They’ll let you know by their vote whether or not they support that bond. And frankly I would rather have the first bond voted down, and that will get some people coming in here that will actually participate in the conversation,” Kerschner said. “So the lights and all that sort of thing, make people know really well what you’re not putting in there … But otherwise I’d say go for what’s needed, because you’re not going to get another bond for 20 years.”
Others, including former longtime Vergennes Union Elementary School board member Cheryl Brinkman, favored some elements more than others.
“The music department has gone without for so long,” Brinkman said. “All those bells and whistles for the track, I’m not sure that is necessary.”
Waltham resident Michael Grace suggested some elements could be scaled back across the board.
“I hope you guys are going to look at some priorities,” Grace said. “I’m not against this whole thing. The safety things need to be addressed. The functionality things need to be addressed. I understand that the school is 50 years old. I think there are luxuries in there that maybe the school doesn’t need.”
Local officials also had mixed feelings. Two selectmen from Ferrisburgh and Panton nodded in agreement with each other after one said the full project would be “a tough sell.”
Mayor Daniels said he and the community were proud of the school’s teachers and music and athletic departments. But he also sounded a note of fiscal caution.
“Don’t give away your pocketbook, because you have to draw a line somewhere,” Daniels said.
School administrators and program heads backed the project despite tough budgeting times and the declining enrollment that is forecast.
VUHS Co-Principal Ed Webbley said a new law will allow up to 10 percent of Vermont students to attend other schools than those in their home districts. He said he was concerned that if VUHS facilities lagged that fewer students and their parents would pick VUHS.
Webbley recalled talking to VUHS instrumental music director Susan O’Daniel and choral director Karen Jordan when he first arrived seven years ago.
“The first conversation I had with Sue and Karen … was about the auditorium, and it was all about safety,” Webbley said.
Webbley, O’Daniel and Jordan listed as safety issues the slippery stage floor, the floor’s long drop to the orchestra pit, the facts the stage curtain is not fireproof and the movie screen is a threat to fall at any moment, the auditorium’s outdated wiring, and lack of modern fire safety protection.
The auditorium also lacks equipment to stage popular concerts and musicals (much of the equipment for musicals is rented), and existing equipment does not always work, according to Jordan and O’Daniel.
Webbley said track and field is one of the most democratic sports a school can offer because participation is not limited to just a few starters and substitutes.
 “At schools this size with a track, potentially you could have 100 kids participating,” he said. “There’s a slot for every kid.”
The project architects said a new grass field would cost $500,000, while the Field Turf brand VUHS officials are eyeing would cost $750,000. That cost difference, they said, made the extra investment worthwhile giving the facility’s heavy use and the drainage problems.
VUHS Athletic Director Peter Maneen also said many local youth programs are increasingly making use of the VUHS fields, which are beginning to show the signs of the strain.
“Pretty much anything that needs space happens here,” Maneen said.
Board member Donald Jochum said the track would allow athletes to stop practicing in school hallways and parking lots, and also be a plus for local residents.
“I can picture the community out there using the track,” Jochum said. “I can see a lot of give-back to the community.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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