Public reviews Mount Abe building repair needs

BRISTOL — Dozens of parents and community members in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union attended an open house Wednesday evening at Mount Abraham Union High School to discuss renovating the building.
The open house, hosted by a committee charged by the school board to develop ideas for what the renovated school should look like, provided ANeSU residents with the opportunity to brainstorm together, as well as question the architect hired by the school board.
Two Mount Abraham students gave those in attendance a tour of the school, and pointed out things they believed could be improved. A common complaint was the lack of natural light in the building. Many classrooms have no windows, and the ends of some corridors, where a row of windows used to exist, have been converted into offices. Some classrooms also do not have hallway access, meaning students have to walk through one classroom to get to another, which may disrupt other classes.
Other concerns include a lack of places for students to go during study hall, nonexistent drainage systems for emergency showers in science classrooms, poorly-functioning fume hoods for chemistry experiments, lockers that are too small for current students’ needs, and a lack of gym space for the plethora of Mount Abraham middle and high school sports teams.
Mount Abraham was built in 1967 and originally housed 688 students and 65 staff members. This year, it serves 749 students and about 100 staff. Except for the addition of a wing in 2004, the building looks much like it did nearly 50 years ago.
The school board has been discussing a renovation since 2011. Last fall, the board hired Dorr and Whittier, a South Burlington architecture firm that specializes in schools, to conduct a feasibility study. To complete the feasibility study, a team of architects from the firm inspected every nook and cranny of the building to point out code issues, and where the building could be improved.
The firm later presented three options for renovations, ranging from minimal maintenance to major changes to the building. The least expensive plan was $11.6 million, while the most expensive was $27.9 million.
Dorr and Whittier also designed the school’s 2004 expansion.
Lee Dorr was at the meeting Wednesday to answer questions. He said the minimal estimate for renovation is so high because the district has put off upkeep on the building.
“There’s a long list of deferred maintenance,” Dorr said. “When you’re struggling with budgets that usually gets put off onto the back burner.”
This basic upkeep would address heating, lighting, electrical infrastructure, air conditioning, windows, roof and floor finishing.
Dorr encouraged residents to consider doing more than just catch up on the deferred maintenance, as it will do little to enhance the educational experience of students at Mount Abraham.
“When you walk in after you spend that much money, it’s going to look much like today,” Dorr said.
Dorr said his team also met with the Mount Abraham staff to address what worked and did not work about the educational environment of the school. He stressed that the “what doesn’t work” list was much longer. Door and Whittier also circulated a study among students.
“We’ve been data mining to collect all of this information, which is at our fingertips now,” Dorr said.
Dorr said common concerns among students and faculty were air quality, natural light and the size of classrooms. From this research, the firm has reached some preliminary conclusions.
“Classroom sizes and the size of the building seems to be adequate for the population that’s coming in here,” Dorr said. “But the use of the space isn’t really good.”
Currently, Door said his firm is developing a plan to make better use of the space, while also keeping an eye toward future needs at the school.
“We’re going to package that with the list of deferred maintenance to come up with a more comprehensive proposal to bring to the community,” Dorr said. “That’s the process we’re working through right now.”
After the team completes its research, it will deliver another report to the community. The school board has also hired a construction company, which Dorr said can more accurately estimate costs than he can.
“We’re designing for that next generation that’s coming, so we can adapt the building to those changing needs,” Dorr said.
These improvements include adapting the building for 21st-century technology, as well as shifting away from the regimented model of identically sized rooms along every corridor.
“If you have an AP class with six kids, why do you need them in a space that’s built for 20?” Dorr reasoned. “To try and get more flexibility with the size of classes, you need big spaces and small spaces.”
Dorr said his team was also looking at ways to incorporate small rooms for group projects and personal interventions.
What it comes down to is making the best use of the school building, given space and financial limitations.
“How can we use the building we have and enhance it, and try to make everything work?” he said. “It’s a matter of trying to be as efficient as we can.”
Dorr said he hopes to present the firm’s new findings in late summer or early fall. Under the most expedient circumstances, a proposal could be put in front of ANeSU voters this November.

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