VUHS sets dual bond votes for upgrade project

VERGENNES — Addison Northwest Supervisory Union residents on Feb. 5 will face a two-tiered bond vote on plans to upgrade Vergennes Union High School’s building and grounds.
The VUHS board on Monday agreed to put before voters a $4.2 million plan that would fund building repairs and upgrades, most notably including new roofing in some areas and major improvements to the school’s auditorium, kitchen and cafeteria.
If voters back that $4.2 million bond in February, it would also pay for site work around the building and bleachers in the middle school gym.
Board chairwoman Kristin Bristow said on Tuesday that plan, less about $300,000 in cuts, is essentially identical to the one voted down on Nov. 6, 2,244-1,653 — except it does not include a proposed artificial turf field and six-lane track that would surround it.
But ANwSU residents could still decide to approve those athletic upgrades on Feb. 5.
A separate ballot item will ask that if — and only if — the $4.2 million bond is backed, would residents also support an additional $2 million for the turf field and track.
Bristow said board members wrestled with how to proceed after the Nov. 6 bond setback because they also supported the field and the track.
“It was a very tough decision because we all felt that what we put out there in the beginning was what we need,” she said.
But in recent weeks Bristow said the board finally received the input members had sought all along. And many residents, even those she called “long-term supporters” of the school, increasingly began to tell board members they should consider a bond proposal without the athletic upgrades.
“They felt all the building things should be done,” Bristow said. “We listened to them.”
Board members also believed that in order to get work started by next summer they could not wait until Town Meeting Day to hold the next vote. Contractors have to be lined up quickly, Bristow said.
“We need to get them (the project specs) out to bid as fast as possible,” she said. “The architects wanted to get them out to bid in January.”
Board members did consider changes proposed by project architects that could have lowered the cost to $3.7 million, but Bristow said they were not sure of the viability of the proposed changes.
The alterations, she said, included retaining the existing slope of the auditorium, which the architects said might be possible because all handicap-accessible seating would be at the top or bottom of the slope; modifying the catwalks; and not enclosing the proposed theatrical control room.
Bristow said the board was concerned about the legality of the slope changes, that catwalk changes might limit access to them during performances, and that not enclosing the control room might pose security problems.
“We weren’t confident in a few things,” she said, while adding that some changes might be possible with more research. “What we decided is we were more confident with $4.2 million, and we will get the details as the questions are answered.”
The changes made to the original plan to save $300,000 include removing a skylight; adjusting plans for performance-enhancing improvements in the auditorium, such as lighting and sound rigging equipment; making some cuts in kitchen equipment; and taking out plans to level the floor of the library/media center and install new carpeting.
Work to be funded would include major work in the auditorium, which officials said was left behind in the most recent school-wide expansion and upgrade. The effort there would include improvements to its wiring, ventilation systems, lighting and sound systems, storage, stage surface (which teachers said is dangerously slippery) and orchestra pit. All seats would be replaced, and the control room, catwalks, and handicap-accessible seating and entries would be added.  
The school now rents lights and other equipment for plays, but not for concerts and theater classes, Bristow said, and the new equipment would serve both.
Officials said the school’s kitchen and cafeteria have gone essentially untouched since VUHS was built five decades ago.
The $4.2 million bond would fund new equipment; an exterior walk-in cooler; new wiring, lighting and ventilation; air conditioning in the cafeteria; new doors and flooring; a skylight; 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 is the deteriorating roof and eaves on the original classroom wing and auditorium, and that work is also included in the $4.2 million.
Also included is a new surface for the parking lot to the west of the school, repair of the existing sidewalk that runs from the school to Monkton Road, installation of a second sidewalk from the school’s main entrance to Monkton Road, and safety and traffic-flow improvements to the driveways near that entrance.
The additional $2 million would buy the turf field and track and related improvements.
Board members have 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 many games have been moved and practices lost due to weather problems that a turf field would solve, that maintenance would be cheaper on a turf field, and that a turf surface would allow VUHS to continue to serve the many Vergennes-area youth and adult programs that use the school’s facilities.
ANwSU business manager Kathy Cannon on Tuesday released estimates for the tax impact of $4.2 million and $6.2 million bonds on the five district communities. Cannon noted she could only base those estimates on 2013 spending and grand list data in emphasizing their approximate nature, and said that individual towns’ Common Levels of Appraisal (CLAs) would move the numbers up or down.
Given those disclaimers:
•  For a $4.2 million bond, approval could mean a range of increases from about $27 per $100,000 of assessed value in Vergennes to roughly $30 per $100,000 of assessed value in Addison.
•  An approved $6.2 million bond would mean increases that could range from a little less than $40 per $100,000 of value in Vergennes to a little more than $44 per $100,000 of value in Addison.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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