ANeSU proposes record $33 million Mt. Abe renovation bond

BRISTOL — Voters in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union will decide on Election Day whether to approve a bond to pay for an ambitious renovation of Mount Abraham Union High School.
The MAUHS school board voted Sept. 16 to ask residents for a sum not to exceed $32.6 million to make substantial improvements to school.
The bond would by far be the largest in the history of Addison County. Until now, the largest was the $16 million bond Middlebury voters approved for the Cross Street Bridge project in 2008.
The Mount Abe bond proposal is also greater than three options an architecture firm presented to the board a year ago, and is more than twice as large as two bond proposals ANeSU voters rejected in the last decade.
The proposal is based on a report by the Mount Abraham Facility Advisory Committee, a group of residents, board members, school officials and students charged last year with developing a renovation plan for the school. The school board has discussed renovating the school since at least 2011.
Facility committee member Troy Paradee said he and his colleagues are seeking to modernize the 45-year-old building to support 21st-century infrastructure, make it more accessible to the community, provide more natural light and enhance the learning experience for students.
“We had some forums where we brought in members of the community,” Paradee said. “This project addresses all the things that they wanted.”
Major parts of the renovation include:
•  Moving the library to the front of the school.
•  Adding a middle school gymnasium.
•  Upgrading the locker rooms.
•  Renovating the lobby area.
Mount Abraham opened in 1969 and with the exception of a 2004 addition of a new wing, looks much as it did nearly 50 years ago. It houses about 60 more students and 45 more staff members than when it opened.
A year ago, the board hired Dore and Whittier to complete a feasibility study, the same firm that oversaw the construction of the new wing.
The architects then presented three options for renovations, ranging from minimal upgrades to major construction. The least expensive option was $11.6 million, while the most expensive was $27.9 million.
Paradee said the current $32.6 million price tag, almost $5 million higher than any of the previous estimates, was largely the result of the later addition of a new middle school gymnasium to the proposal.
Paradee said the current gym, which serves both the middle and high schools, is simply not large enough to accommodate students’ needs, especially in the colder months. He touted an additional gym as a boon to the five communities that send students to Mount Abe: Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, Starksboro and New Haven.
“You have a resource for the community, for physical education in the middle school and for parks and recreation,” Paradee said.
Based on figures provided by the board, the first year of a 20-year bond would increase education taxes between $137 and $199, based on the town, per $100,000 of assessed property value. For a home valued at $250,000, that burden would range from $344 in Lincoln to $498 in Monkton.
Mount Abraham school board vice chair Shawna Sherwin said the board has not yet calculated the cost for subsequent years, but said it will decrease annually.
“The payment goes down every year,” Sherwin said. “The first year is always the biggest.”
About two-thirds of landowners in the five-town area are eligible for income sensitivity exemptions to the state education tax, according to 2010 figures, and thus would not bear the full burden of the bond.
The board does not anticipate receiving any state or federal money to fund the project, which Sherwin said was disappointing.
“All of it will be funded through taxpayers,” Sherwin said.
Worth noting is that the largest bond ever approved in the county to date, the $16 million Cross Street Bridge project in Middlebury, was not funded through property taxes. Middlebury College kicked in $9 million, and the rest was financed through a local option tax.
If history is any indicator, the Mount Abraham board will have a difficult time convincing ANeSU voters to approve the bond.
In 2013, voters in Bristol, the largest town in the district, by a 2 to 1 margin rejected a bond proposal to upgrade the town’s firehouse on North Street. That project was estimated to have cost taxpayers around $2 million.
Since 2000, ANeSU voters have rejected a bond proposal for Mount Abraham for $12.5 million, then rejected an amended proposal for $9.3 million, before approving a $3.45 million bond, with the promise that 30 percent of the cost would be picked up by the state.
The $3.45 million bond voters approved in 2003 cost taxpayers about $30 per year. The new proposed bond is more than nine times larger.
Sherwin said the board hopes that the renovation ends up being much cheaper than the $32.6 million proposal, but she declined to provide a more specific goal.
Since the bond proposal would only authorize expenditures up to $32.6 million, Sherwin said the contractor would eliminate some parts of the project if costs increased beyond that sum.
“If (the cost) is higher, things can be taken off,” Sherwin said.
Conversely, Sherwin said, the contractor would be able to add new parts to the project if costs were lower than expected.
Paradee argued that while expensive, the bond is a good choice for the supervisory union because using the annual budget for single-year expenses is impractical.
“The board has realized that fixing the elevator or sprinklers by themselves is not going to be effective in the budget,” Paradee said. “Even though it’s a large number now, it would be savings if you piecemealed everything out, in terms of bang for your buck.”
Two days after approving the bond proposal, the Mount Abraham board distributed a press release announcing the bond vote, but did not include the sum the board is requesting. A Facebook page promoting the bond project also omitted the cost of the bond in its announcement of the school board’s decision.
Sherwin said the board did not want to present the $33 million figure to voters without putting it in an appropriate context.
“We just wanted folks to know we were moving forward,” Sherwin said. “We hate to just throw that number out without saying how that’s going to break down.”
Sherwin said that while a vote in six weeks may seem soon, especially for such an enormous undertaking, she believes the time is right.
“This has been a two-year process, and we’ve had meetings every other week,” Sherwin said. “There’s momentum now. If you wait, it’s just going to be more expensive.”
Sherwin dismissed the notion that the timing of the vote had anything to do with a future bond vote for a new firehouse in Bristol, which could come as early as Town Meeting Day next year. She added that the facility committee does not feel that the approval of the Mount Abraham bond will hurt the chances of a future Bristol firehouse bond, or vice versa.
“We knew that was also happening, but feel it is completely different,” Sherwin said. “It’s peas and carrots.”
She said the board will work hard to convince skeptics that the bond is the right decision for the community.
“It comes down to how we frame it,” Sherwin said.
To convince herself, Sherwin broke the property tax increase down to monthly increments, and considered it to be a small price to pay for a school for her grandchildren and their children.
Sherwin acknowledged that the proposed renovation is expensive, but believes it will benefit generations to come.
“Forty-five years ago, the community had to invest in that school to build it,” Sherwin said. “It’s our turn now.”
Paradee echoed a similar sentiment.
“The community built this school in 1969 for a couple million dollars, and it has been a significant investment,” Paradee said. “We have to invest in the building we currently own, or deal with the repercussions.”
To learn more about the project, residents can view the facility committee website at www.mtabebondproject.weebly.com.

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