Editorial: The crazy thing about Mt. Abe’s $32.6 million bond is that it’s not all crazy

Tour the Mount Abraham Union High School and Middle School facility and you come away with one distinct impression: it’s a building in need of significant repair.
Consider the proposed $32.6 million bond to finance those repairs and you also have a visceral reaction: that’s a lot of money and, by the way, has the school board completely lost touch with area taxpayers?
ANeSU district voters from the five towns of Bristol, Lincoln, New Haven, Monkton and Starksboro will decide in the upcoming Nov. 4 election what to make of those two conflicting reactions. Passage of the bond would set construction plans in motion not to exceed the proposed $32.6 million; rejection of the bond would send the school board back to the drawing board where less expensive proposals would likely be proposed for a second vote in the not too distant future.
But let’s back up a couple of years to recall how the school board, and the building committee that submitted the $32.6 million proposal, came up with the article currently facing voters.
The latest round of discussions to renovate the high school and middle school started about two years ago by concerned parents who cited the deteriorating condition of the building, classroom equipment and furniture (from classroom desks, work tables and chairs to science labs and mechanical equipment for vocational-tech training), and school security and safety issues. A committee was appointed and they quickly noted glaring needs that anyone touring the school can readily see:
• a middle school physical education space that is woefully inadequate;
• asbestos floor tiles that are broken and peeled up in many classrooms;
• locker and shower spaces for physical education classes that border on being termed “crude” and are in need of an overhaul;
• a notable lack of daylight throughout the building and poor ventilation;
• classroom furniture that borders on being embarrassing (seriously, some of it is that bad);
• a lobby and public entrance that is not secure, nor does it offer adequate visibility of who is entering the building;
• the need for a host of minor upgrades to doors and windows and classrooms to bring the school facility into modern times;
• a school layout that, in many ways, is upside down (janitorial services and space is in the front of the building and the media center is dark and windowless toward the back).
The school facility was built new in 1967-8 and opened for classes in 1969. Forty-five years later, its age shows even though the structure of the building is solid. A decade ago, in 2004, a $3.45 million bond was approved that added classrooms to the south end of the building, but a larger addition asking for $12.5 million, and which included a gym for the middle school, was rejected.
To address the building’s deficiencies today, the board appointed a committee that has spent the past two years seeking public input. The school board hired the architectural firm of Dore and Whittier, known experts in school construction, a year ago to complete a feasibility study. That firm proposed three scenarios: $11.6 million to bring the building up to code; a $22.4 to $24.7 million option that brought it up to code and fixed the physical deficiencies of the plant but didn’t tackle changes to the classroom spaces; and a $26.9 million plan that would essentially gut the building and extensively renovate the school to a like-new status. An additional $5-plus million was later added to that scenario to build a new middle school gymnasium, bringing the total to $32.6 million.
We can appreciate the board’s decision to go for the whole enchilada. Contrary to what the initial reaction might be for many taxpayers, they have not “lost all reason” and, in fact, there is a cost saving rationale behind the proposal. Their thinking goes like this:
• There are so many significant things to change to make the school function better, spending $11 million to tidy things up and bring the school into compliance with today’s safety and accessibility codes — like having a sprinkler system, which the school does not have, or adequate elevator service — would almost be a waste of taxpayer dollars. Codes would be met, but gross inefficiencies and inadequate spaces would still exist.
• To really make a difference to students and public use of the building, the renovation should include moving the media center to the front of the school’s northern side, giving it ample natural light, and moving the existing janitorial and maintenance systems to the back of the building.
• Adding a middle school gymnasium to the south end of the facility allows the school to focus middle school classes on that end of the building, while keeping high school students concentrated in the center and to the north of the building — thus drawing an element of separation between 7th-8th graders and the older high school students. That’s a laudable and reasonable goal.
• Bond rates are historically low today and are expected to climb slightly as interest rates increase in the years to come; thus the cost to taxpayers to make all the improvements at once would be less in the long run.
• Finally, quality schools are essential to thriving communities; conversely, decrepit school facilities turn prospective families away and encourage them to look to neighboring towns with better school facilities. If that trend persists, declining communities often witness falling home values and a reduced grand list.
But even with those compelling arguments, $32.6 million is a monumental amount. It equates to a tax increase on a $200,000 home of about $365 a year, or more (depending on the town), which is on top of current taxes. At first blush, that’s not likely to happen.
But district taxpayers also have to consider the alternatives. Considering what needs to be done to create a facility that meets the demands of today’s students and engenders community pride, the communities must make a serious effort to imagine how a similar result could be achieved for less. The indoor pool is one obvious solution to trimming costs, but many community members have expressed support for keeping the pool and consider it an essential public amenity; and even if it were cemented over and converted to a gym, the savings wouldn’t be all that great (a few million at best).
The school, in short, needs a significant overhaul. At 169,000 square feet (including a new middle school gymnasium), and at $400 per square foot of construction cost (a figure supplied by Dore and Whittier), that would be $67.6 million if built new. Even at $300 a square foot, that’s $50.7 million. To gut the building, replace sewage tanks, oil tanks and other infrastructure improvements and to wholly renovate the interior of much of the school, expenses are not likely to be under that middle estimate of roughly $22-$25 million, and more if the full scope of the project remains intact.
We’re not surprised district taxpayers are suffering from sticker shock on this initial go-around and are not ready to bite that bullet. But the tab is going to be high whenever it is settled. The challenge residents face is to get the best long-term value for their tax dollars. That will take careful study and lots of additional community involvement — even then, it may be that the current option is frighteningly close to reality even if it exceeds the taxpayers’ ability to afford it. If that’s true, new ways to imagine financing our educational facilities may be forced to the fore.
Angelo Lynn

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