ANwSU residents say ‘no’ to $6.5 million VUHS bond

VERGENNES — Residents of the five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union towns on Tuesday rejected a proposed $6.5 million bond to fund repairs and major upgrades to Vergennes Union High School, 2,244-1,653.
In percentage terms, voters said no by 57.6 to 42.4 percent to a plan that included improvements to the school’s auditorium, installation of a six-lane track and an artificial turf playing field, upgrades to its kitchen and cafeteria, roof repairs to several areas of the building, and parking, sidewalk and traffic-flow improvements.
ANwSU administrative assistant Glory Martin, who received the commingled ballots on Tuesday night, said the number of votes on a union-wide issue was the highest she could recall. Turnout was 75 percent in Addison, 74 percent in Ferrisburgh and Panton, and 72 percent in Vergennes and Waltham.
ANwSU business manager Kathy Cannon had estimated the project would have added between $82 and $94 in additional annual taxes for an ANwSU home assessed at $200,000, assuming its owners are not eligible for tax prebates. More than half of ANwSU homeowners were eligible for prebates according to most recently available state data.
School officials on Tuesday night said they would quickly discuss their next steps, including how to fund the most critical repair needs that the bond would have funded.
“There are several health and safety issues in there,” said ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien.
O’Brien listed as priorities roof repairs to the classroom wing and auditorium, aging kitchen and cafeteria facilities, and “functional issues” in the auditorium, including heating and ventilation, unsafe wiring, and safety problems with the stage.
He said he would recommend that the VUHS board look at separating out the proposed elements for voting “possibly earlier than Town Meeting Day,” but certainly no later than then.
“It was a pretty ambitious plan, and there are some parts to the plan that are critical, and some pieces of that plan that are not so critical, and my recommendation was to consider separating the two,” O’Brien said.
VUHS board member Neal Kamman said the board had made a proposal that it considered to be in the school’s best interests, but had done so in a virtual vacuum — feedback, despite a series of meetings and school tours held in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, was almost non-existent until an informational meeting the Thursday before Election Day.
“I understand the citizens view it as a large ask,” Kamman said. “I think folks didn’t have an opportunity to hear the parameter of what was best for the whole school before they made the decision.”
At that final meeting, Kamman said residents did echo O’Brien and suggest the board “separate out the various components,” and members will consider that option in the weeks to come, as they had to a degree in the past.
“I want to thank the people for coming out and giving us the guidance they did,” he said. “That’s information we can use to turn around and regroup.”
One question before the board is whether to risk putting up immediate maintenance needs, notably the leaky roofing, up for another bond vote, or whether to load that expense onto a single budget, which would be a burden on one year’s spending.
“We do have some short-term decisions to make,” Kamman said. “We may need to consider putting those critical maintenance issues right up front in the budget.”
Kamman also said the board would have to be mindful that the city of Vergennes is considering floating a Town Meeting Day bond to fund a new police station.
In all, he said, members would have a lot to mull over at their upcoming meetings, with luck getting some help.
“What hopefully can happen is that we can get a little more input as to what the public sees as priorities,” Kamman said, adding, “We have to turn around and think about what needs to be done next.”
The proposed auditorium work was the most expensive part of the project, at $1.944 million. Like the costs dedicated to each part of the project, 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.
The project proposed to 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; 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 theater entrances.
Proposed athletic field improvements, without soft costs and contingencies, totaled about $1.55 million.
They include $750,000 for a turf field, $600,000 for a track to surround that field, and $200,000 for related improvements.
Board members said high school tracks are typically popular among community members looking to exercise.
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 said team numbers have dropped because of the lack of a track.
Officials said games have been moved and practice times lost due to weather problems that a turf field would solve, and that a turf field would better serve the many community programs that use VUHS facilities.
The plan called 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.
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 issue that first triggered talk of a bond — the deteriorating roof and eaves on the original classroom wing and auditorium — carries a $454,000 price tag.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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