VUHS auditorium closed as school reopens

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Union High School auditorium will be closed for what school officials said could be a few weeks following a safety inspection last week, but they also said they have a plan to fix the most pressing problems and bring the room and stage back on line as soon as possible — but probably not for a full fall theatrical production.
“We’re going to take the immediate steps that are necessary so it can be used as an auditorium … and for performance purposes,” said VUHS board and building committee member Jeffry Glassberg.
With the first day of school set for Wednesday, officials had expected to at least have the auditorium open for all-school assemblies and meetings, but Co-Principals Ed Webbley and Stephanie Taylor said inspectors could not guarantee the integrity of the wooden structure that holds heavy lights right over seats. 
“They are suspended directly over the auditorium seating area,” Taylor said.
VUHS director of building and grounds Bob Worley will arrange for contractors to come and remove the lighting, they said.
But at a Thursday meeting in the auditorium, the VUHS building committee, Worley, the co-principals, and Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Tom O’Brien only made one decision: a temporary shutdown.   
“We realized that we had to keep the auditorium closed,” Webbley said.
Meanwhile, bringing the stage back on line will be running on a parallel track. The recent inspection revealed that nothing is safely attached to the walls or ceiling: curtains, a movie screen, ropes, chains, and other lighting and sound rigging close to the stage.
“All rigging fails current safety standards,” read the report from BMI Supply of Queensbury, N.Y. “The use of open link hardware that is not load rated are serious safety issues. Remedial work is strongly recommended.”
Webbley said Worley can handle many of the stage-area issues.  
“We came to a conclusion that Bob will ASAP get a crew in here to demolish the rigging, take it all down and get it out of here, while preserving what can be preserved, mostly lighting (fixtures),” Webbley said.
Glassberg said not all the inspection news was bad: The structure was found to be sound, and the issue is the hardware used. 
“It’s a concern about the nature of the attachment materials,” Glassberg said. “The ceiling’s not caving in.”
While Worley and crew go to work, the main stage curtains will also be removed, dry-cleaned and fireproofed. Webbley said the side stage curtains are not salvageable.
The auditorium seating, sidewalls and ceiling will also be professionally cleaned once workers have finished putting new roofing on the structure, a project that has an October timetable and is funded by a $600,000 loan voters approved this spring.
Webbley also said earlier in the week that the inspectors told Worley the stage’s slippery surface could be fixed.
“Here’s the question our maintenance director asked,” Webbley said. “If I had a crew of five to six capable men, could we make the stage area safe for performance in two or three days? … And the guy evidently said, ‘Absolutely, you can do that.’”
Webbley said the room’s air quality checked out.
“It’s just stale, because we can’t turn on the airhandler, because it makes too much noise to hear a play,” he said. “But there’s no mold or dangerous particulates in the air.”
Officials will be scrambling to pay for repairs in what is always a tight budget. They earlier estimated the cleaning alone at about $7,000.
“What we don’t know at this point is what the cost of this is going to be and how we are going to finance the stabilization of the auditorium,” Webbley said.
The school’s music teachers were also set to meet on Monday to start deciding how to adapt to the new circumstances, which could remain fluid in the weeks to come. A full production of the musical “Bye Bye Birdie” had been scheduled for November, and Webbley said having fully lit traditional staging by then is unlikely.
In a letter to VUHS families, students, staff and board members, Webbley and Taylor wrote:
“The problem we face is that we have not been able to guarantee Susan O’Daniel and Karen Jordan (and hence, their supporters) when they could expect to have the infrastructure (curtains, rigging, lights) to perform the fall musical and concerts. Having no guarantees, Susan and Karen had to reluctantly table “Bye, Bye, Birdie” … Being consummate professionals, Karen and Sue are brainstorming alternative performances and venues. (The stage itself might be ready by late November, but likely without curtains and lights.)”
Glassberg said it was unfortunate that the concrete data about the auditorium was coming out just when school is ready to open, but said that information will be valuable as the board plans for a bond that is the ultimate answer for auditorium and stage issues. And he thanked VUHS employees for their efforts in dealing with the situation.
“The timing is less than ideal, but we’re getting our house in order,” he said. “And we really couldn’t do it without an incredibly dedicated staff and faculty.”
Glassberg called the inspection “consistent with the plan we’ve previously discussed” of taking care of the school’s health and safety issues first as they prepare for a bond vote on the kitchen and auditorium, probably as soon as this fall. To save money through a cheaper, longer-term bond, that bond will also include a refinance of the $600,000 roofing loan.
“In order to move to that next step, it’s important to establish the facts at the school,” he said.
The board plans a fall vote because it will allow projects to go out to bid during the winter and for contractors to plan on summer work.
 “That’s still our intent. The time frame is tight,” Glassberg said.
He hopes the new information on the auditorium will help voters understand the scope of the problem for a bond amount that has yet to be decided.
“We want to build substantial community support this time,” he said. “It’s too early to discuss specifics, but our goal is to make it as affordable to voters as possible.”
 Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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