Editorial: $6.5 million VUHS bond needs community debate

Residents of the city of Vergennes and the other four towns that make up the Vergennes Union High School district (Panton, Waltham, Addison and Ferrisburgh) will vote on a $6.5 million school bond on election day, Nov. 6. The district school board announced a review of that proposal for Tuesday night’s board meeting and publicized it as the final public meeting before a firm amount would be warned.
Four non-board members attended the meeting, and three were school employees. Turnout at other prior meetings has also been sparse, and public comment on the proposed bond has been next to nil.
Reading the tea leaves with such a void of feedback can be risky business, but generally that says one of two things: either the public is mostly in favor of the bond and won’t mind the increase in tax rates, or the increase in taxes is a non-starter and citizens aren’t going to vote for it whether it’s absolutely needed or not.
Either approach, for this bond vote, would be a mistake. It is not a slam-dunk decision that every aspect of this bond is essential. On the other hand, a good portion of the work — like fixing leaking roofs, and other structural issues — is absolutely necessary. Public discussion and feedback usually helps sort out those pros and cons to craft the best proposal possible to put before voters.
That train left the station on Tuesday, leaving district residents with an up-or-down vote on the entire amount on Election Day. That said, there is still time to learn the details of the bond, discuss the rationale with school board members and vote intelligently by attending one of four open houses set for Oct. 16, 18, 23 and 25. All the public meetings will start at the VUHS library at 6:30 p.m., and continue with tours of the interior areas of the school. A tour of the proposed track and field improvements will be held on Oct. 27 at 10 a.m., and an official public information meeting will be held Nov. 1 at 7 p.m.
Briefly, here’s a review of the proposed bond (with more detail provided in a front page story.)
• What: Renovating the school auditorium is the biggest ticket item at $1.944 million, plus 30 percent more in “soft” expenses, like permits, architectural fees, contingencies and other real costs that are not bricks and mortar. The renovations would entail replacing all 550 seats, putting in catwalks and a new sound and lighting system, redoing the stage surface, expanding the orchestra pit, improving air circulation and making the auditorium handicap accessible.
While the project would fix the auditorium’s roof and improve air circulation, it would also add catwalks to the lighting and sound systems, add a raised control room, build a new orchestra pit and, in general, brighten the shine on a stage that has served the school’s theater department and school community well for the past several decades.
• What: At $1,550,000, the bond also provides for a new turf athletic field for soccer and other sports, and a turf track around that field. The artificial turf field is $750,000 and the six-land turf track is $600,000. Add another $200,000 for associated expenses.
The school’s fields are in a flat field and easily flooded, frequently causing game cancellations and postponements. A turf playing field and track would be a boon to the athletic programs; the track could also be used by the community at large.
• The school’s kitchen, cafeteria and food services missed the past few renovations and is in need of upgrading, school officials say. The proposal calls for improvements amounting to $748,000.
• A deteriorating roof on the original classroom wing and auditorium comes in at $454,000.
Other smaller items have been added to the proposed budget, including paving of parking lots and driveways, construction and repair of sidewalks, replacing middle school bleachers and replacing carpeting in the media center. A $125,000 provision to add solar panels on the school roof was cut out to keep the budget at $6.5 million.
•Projected annual tax increases are between $41 and $47 per $100,000 in assessed home value for the lifetime of the bond before tax prebates, which most ANwSU taxpayers receive.
That’s a lot to digest by simply reading about it. To understand the current condition of the facilities and what the proposed improvements would accomplish — in other words, to be a well-informed voter — a first-hand tour of the school at one of the upcoming Open Houses would be extremely helpful, if not essential. Nor is it too late, at these meetings, for community debate and feedback. Whether the bond is passed or not, it’s always good to know why and that can only be determined by a robust discussion.
Angelo S. Lynn

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