Residents sound off on Mt. Abe bond plan

BRISTOL — Reactions were mixed from the more than 30 Addison Northeast Supervisory Union residents who turned out for a special Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School Board meeting on the proposed $33 million bond to finance a substantial renovation of the school.
Most spoke in favor of the project, while others raised concerns about the price tag and the necessity of some of the more ambitious parts of the proposal.
The school board on Sept. 16 voted to put the $32.6 million bond before voters on Election Day next month.
The renovation would, among other things, add natural light throughout the building, provide hallway access to classrooms, heighten security on campus, add a middle school gymnasium, move the library to the front of the building, renovate the pool, add locker rooms and reconfigure the lobby area. It would also eliminate the need for additional rooms in trailers currently located in back of the building.
According to the school board, the plan would increase the square footage of the building by 13,950 square feet to a total of 169,641 square feet.
Board members and ANeSU officials on Monday explained to the community members present why they feel the bond is needed to improve the school.
Troy Paradee, a parent and member of the committee that developed renovation proposals, acknowledged that the renovation would be expensive, but argued that it makes more financial sense to improve the school in one project, rather than in several, smaller fixes.
“We’re trying to package things all together in one hit,” Paradee said. “A lot of things have been put off for a long time, and construction costs only go up; they don’t go down.”
The renovation would allow for a separate entrance and administrative offices from the middle school, in an effort to treat the middle school and high school as separate entities.
“We can really separate the middle school students out as much as possible,” Paradee said.
ANeSU Superintendent David Adams said the benefit of the renovation is worth the expense.
“There’s a significant cost, but there’s a significant need,” Adams said.
Adams said that no matter how state-of-the-art Mount Abraham was when completed in the late 1960s, the district could not have anticipated 21st-century technological infrastructure.
“I don’t know who invented the Internet … but it wasn’t invented in 1969,” Adams said. “We have a challenge of maintaining the facility for current standards and practices.”
Mount Abraham Principal Gaynell Lyman said the all the returns on investment for improving a school aren’t quantifiable. She said a renovated Mount Abe would boost student morale and enhance the education of students.
“There’s something special about walking into a building you’re really proud of,” Lyman said. “A lot of students would benefit from coming into a fresh place that’s not outdated and provides us with the ability to feel at home in the space that we’re in.”
The superintendent said the renovation would also make Mount Abraham more energy-efficient.
“We anticipate about a 20 percent savings in energy costs,” Adams said.
About 10 residents posed questions to the board, and most indicated they would support the bond.
Brenda Tillberg said she did not think parts of the school, such as the science labs, are outdated as the school board has suggested.
“They were poorly designed in the first place, and there are things that can be improved, but they’re not outdated,” Tillberg said, adding that she was not convinced that the project represents a cogent strategy for education. “I do not see any vision taking us to the 21st century.”
She was also concerned that voters may not know exactly what they are getting for the hefty price.
“How can we as voters really know what we can get for $32 million?” Tillberg asked the board. “Because as we are often told, the plans are merely concepts.”
Alan Quittnersaid he thought the project was just too expensive for voters to stomach.
“One of the things I wonder about this project is how the district came up with $32 million, especially when 30 percent of people in this district are considered economically limited,” he said. “I think it’s an enormous project, and it’s a little too much money for the community.”
According to estimates done by the school board, the first year for the 20-year bond would increase education taxes for ANeSU residents between $274 and $398, depending on the town, based on a home assessed at $200,000. The board said that number will decrease each subsequent year.
If passed, the bond would be the largest in the history of Addison County.
One resident questioned why the supervisory union did not finance repairs on an annual basis, using the regular budget. Adams said that with a total annual ANeSU budget of about $14 million, there’s no room for large renovation expenditures without placing an onerous, one-time burden on taxpayers. He gave the example of trying to finance a renovation of the school’s auditorium in a single year.
“We’re talking substantial dollars and it’s unlikely that on an annual basis, we could create a piecemeal renovation budget,” Adams said.
Eric Carter said he supported the project, but was concerned that the board may not have calculated additional costs for improving community access to the school.
“If you come in and use the gym, you need a custodian here,” Carter said. “I expect also that with the additional footprint, the custodial department will have to add employees. You have another budgetary problem that would require some additional explanation.”
Resident Elizabeth Marr said she’s in favor of the renovation because repairs to the school are long past due.
“Approaching it as a whole package is the way to go,” Marr said. She added that when she toured the school, she thought it looked dilapidated and the classrooms lacked natural light.
Sheri Bedard, who said she had small children who will one day attend the school, said she thinks the renovation would be a worthwhile investment for the five-town community.
“It’s expensive, and it’s not going to get any cheaper, and I don’t know of any place better to put my money,” Bedard said.
Sally Ober thanked the school buildings and grounds staff for their upkeep of the building, and said there is only so much custodians can do.
“I don’t want to think of the building being rundown from a lack of trying,” Ober said. “It’s just time we need to make bigger improvements than keeping it clean.”

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