Voters defeat $6.2M in VUHS renovation bonds

VERGENNES — Addison Northwest Supervisory Union residents on Tuesday voted down two Vergennes Union High School bonds totaling $6.2 million that the VUHS board had hoped would pay for major improvements inside and outside the school.
A $4.2 million bond proposal lost, 820-671, or 55-45 percent, in commingled balloting in the five ANwSU towns. 
It was intended to fund major improvements to the VUHS auditorium, kitchen and cafeteria; new roofing in several areas where school officials said it is badly needed; repaving of one parking lot; one new sidewalk and repair of another; traffic flow improvements in the pick-up and drop-off area; and new bleachers in the middle school gym.
A second $2 million bond proposal lost overwhelmingly, 1,107-376, or 74.6-25.4 percent.
That bond would have funded an artificial surface for the school’s varsity soccer/lacrosse field and built a six-lane track to surround it. That second, smaller bond could not have been approved separately from the larger bond, according to the vote warning the VUHS board OK’d in December.
The VUHS board had cut $300,000 from the $6.5 million bond rejected by ANwSU residents on Nov. 6, 2,244-1,653. That bond would have funded almost all of the elements proposed separately on Tuesday.
According to ANwSU estimates, approval of the $4.2 million bond could have meant a range of property tax increases from about $27 per $100,000 of assessed value in Vergennes to roughly $30 per $100,000 of assessed value in Addison.
Approving both bonds, or $6.2 million, could have meant increases ranging 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.
The VUHS board is set to meet on Monday night to take stock of the second bond setback and discuss its next move. Neither board chairwoman Kris Bristow nor ANwSU Superintendent Tom O’Brien on Wednesday would talk specifics about what that next step might be.
But O’Brien noted that the leaky portions of the school’s roofing cannot wait another budget cycle to be fixed, and it is too late to include roofing money in the Town Meeting Day VUHS spending proposal.
O’Brien said in response to a question the board will have to float another bond. Without getting into details, he said the board might have to focus on the issues that first triggered bond discussions: roofing, which he called “an absolute need,” and other critical issues.
“We have a school in need. That’s what’s drove the bond to start with. Perhaps they need to review that statement of need,” O’Brien said, adding, “The discussion has been all along is there are safety and health issues at that school, and those are the issues that need to be addressed.”
Bristow said the hard part is separating out what are health and safety issues.
“We truly believe the majority of what we had to do … was to get the building safe for our students and faculty,” she said.
Even elements like the proposed catwalks and control room in the auditorium had safety components, Bristow said, and she also pointed to the board’s belief that the most cost-effective time to make desirable upgrades was all at once during a major project, not in a piecemeal fashion. For example, it was the right time to add air conditioning in the cafeteria, she said.
“If you’re doing improvements, you want to do everything,” Bristow said.
Bristow said the board also tried to honor feedback, although some issues about the level of auditorium upgrades were raised after the bond had been warned.
“I truly believed that we listened to the public. The majority of what we heard prior to publicizing the second bond was they felt the track and field was totally above and beyond, and can we split it, and that’s what we did,” Bristow said. “I thought the first one would pass because of that.”
Bristow said the process would begin again next week when all board members could weigh in. 
“I need to hear from our board members before we even discuss it,” she said.
O’Brien said discussion will focus on what has to be done and what ANwSU residents will support.
“That’s always a tough question,” he said.
Officials had said work in the auditorium is overdue because it was overlooked in the most recent school-wide expansion and upgrade.
Proposed work included upgrades to wiring, ventilation systems, lighting and sound systems, storage, the slippery stage surface and orchestra pit. All seats would be replaced, and a 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, and new equipment would serve both.
In the kitchen and cafeteria, the $4.2 million bond would have funded 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 have reconfigured the cafeteria service area and made it meet handicap-accessibility laws. Officials said the school’s kitchen and cafeteria have gone essentially untouched since VUHS was built five decades ago.
The issue that first triggered talk of a bond is the deteriorating roofing on the original classroom wing and auditorium, and that work was included in the $4.2 million.
The second $2 million would have paid for the turf field, track and related improvements. VUHS has a track team that now practices without a track, and after funding cuts 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 turf field maintenance would be cheaper, and the surface would allow VUHS to continue to serve the many Vergennes-area youth and adult programs that use the school’s facilities.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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