VUHS pegs $6.5 million for facilities

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Union High School board on Monday agreed to ask voters in November to approve a $6.5 million bond to fund major repairs and upgrades to the school’s building and site.
Most notably, work would include fixing leaky roofing on the classroom wing; making major improvements and safety upgrades to the school’s auditorium, kitchen and cafeteria; and installing artificial turf on the school’s varsity soccer and lacrosse field and surrounding it with a track.
Addison Northwest Supervisory Union business manager Kathy Cannon said the project, if approved by voters on Election Day, would add between $41 and $47 in annual property taxes per $100,000 of assessed home value in the ANwSU towns.
Those figures translate to between $82 and $94 in additional annual taxes for a home assessed at $200,000, assuming its owners are not eligible for tax prebates. Most ANwSU taxpayers are eligible to pay property taxes based on their incomes, rather than on their property values, and thus receive prebates.
Cannon said her calculations do not take into account individual towns’ Common Levels of Appraisal (CLAs). Currently, most ANwSU towns’ assessments are near fair market value, and their CLAs are not pushing taxes higher.
VUHS board members on Monday said considering the many needs the bond would address they did not believe that the additional taxes were too much to ask.
“As a citizen, it’s worth it to me,” said board member Neil Kamman of Vergennes. “Let’s explain it to the citizens why it’s a good idea … This is an opportunity to put the school’s best foot forward.”
The biggest ticket item is the auditorium, at $1.944 million. Like the costs dedicated to each part of the project, as estimated by the firm of Colin P. Lindberg, Architects, that figure is subject to a further 30 percent bump for “soft costs and contingencies,” including architectural and engineering fees, permits, change orders and unforeseen circumstances.
Board members and school officials noted that the auditorium was left out in the 2000 school-wide renovation, that the stage surface and wiring is unsafe, the handicap accessibility and accommodations are inadequate, the lighting and performance rigging systems are poor, the seating is nearly worn out, the orchestra pit is too small, storage is inadequate, the roof structure is weak, and air handling is non-existent.
The project would add a raised control room at the rear of the room; repair its roof; add air handling; install catwalks along both walls and one over the seats; create handicap seating and a handicap entrance; replace all 550 seats; install new lighting, sound and rigging systems; replace and upgrade wiring; build a new orchestra pit and add storage; add new carpet, paint and a stage curtain; replace the stage surface; and upgrade the entries to the theater.
Board members did debate the cost of the control room, third catwalk across the seating, and the sound, lighting and rigging systems before finally deciding to move forward with what they said was a long overdue auditorium rehab.
“To do the catwalks, to do the raised control room, it’s a great idea. It’s wonderful,” said board chair Kristin Bristow of Waltham. “But can we do all of this? And if we have to cut out, where can we cut out?”
Architect Colin Lindberg suggested the catwalk going over the seats could be eliminated, but said doing so might save only $20,000.
Kamman suggested the sound and lighting and rigging systems might be too costly at $200,000 and $135,000, respectively. Lindberg said some savings were possible there, but consultants told his firm those were the going rates for modern equipment.
Randy Burnett, the architectural firm’s project manager, agreed the final figures for those elements might drop. “We do think there are some high numbers in there,” he said.
Athletic field improvements, without soft costs and contingencies, total $1.55 million.
They include $750,000 for an artificial turf field, $600,000 for a track to surround that field, and $200,000 for related improvements.
Board members said high school tracks, including at Champlain Valley Union, are popular for community members looking to exercise.  
“That’s why I’m hearing support for it. People want that,” Kamman said.
VUHS has a track team that now practices without a track, and the school no longer pays to send the team to use the Middlebury College facility. VUHS Activities Director Peter Maneen told the board team numbers have dropped because of the lack of a track.
Maneen also said a new grass field to replace the current clay-surfaced field, which has drainage and other problems, would cost $500,000 and require more maintenance than the turf field.
Maneen also noted that many community youth organizations use VUHS as a home base.
“It does seem like a luxury, the turf. But in a town without a rec department, this school serves as a base for that,” he said.
Board member Donald Jochum of Addison noted $750,000 of cuts had already been made to the proposed facility, including bleachers, lighting, a building with a concessions stand and restrooms, and a press box.
“(It is) a basic facility … that is good for our kids, and a track that is good for our community. That sounds good to me,” Jochum said.
The plan calls for $748,000 plus soft costs and contingencies to upgrade the kitchen and cafeteria, which has gone essentially untouched since VUHS was built five decades ago.
“There’s good reason after 50 years to upgrade,” Lindberg said.
That money would buy new equipment; an exterior walk-in cooler; new wiring, lighting and ventilation; air conditioning in the cafeteria; new doors and flooring; skylights; fire protection upgrades; storage; and plumbing and drains.
It would also reconfigure the cafeteria service area and make sure it met handicap-accessibility laws.
The least-discussed item on the agenda was the issue that first triggered talk of a bond — the deteriorating roof and eaves on the original classroom wing and auditorium, with a $454,000 price tag.
“It absolutely needs to be done,” Lindberg said.
The plan would also add a sidewalk to Monkton Road from the school’s east entrance and repair the west sidewalk, repave the west parking lot, reconfigure parking and the pickup area near the main entrance, replace bleachers in the middle school gym, and level the floor and replace carpet in the school’s library/media center.
The board on Monday cut out a $125,000 line item for solar panels, but hopes that cost savings, especially in the auditorium and general contingencies, would allow the panels to be included in the final project.
The board will meet at 6 p.m. on Tuesday to sign the paperwork and warn the Nov. 6 vote.
Board members had hoped the meeting this past Monday would be better attended and had worked hard to publicize it. But only one teacher and two residents attended.
One Panton resident, Kathy Kennett, was not sure that a bond that focused on extracurricular activities was a good idea. Kennett said that during annual VUHS budget deliberations cuts are now made to items like new computers and software for the school’s existing computers.
Kennett also pointed to the school’s declining enrollment, which will mean a drop in state funding.
“I don’t know where in the community the money is coming from,” she said.
The board, however, was more inclined to agree with Ferrisburgh resident Kristina MacKulin, who pointed to the new state law that will allow many students to choose which public school they would like to attend. She said the extracurriculars would be vital.
“With school choice the wave of the future, making our school more … attractive makes this a good idea,” MacKulin said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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