Mount Abe bond proposal stirs strong emotions

BRISTOL — With a vote on a bond to fund a renovation of Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School looming, a large number of residents of the five-town area have taken pen in hand (metaphorically) to urge their neighbors to support or reject the proposal.
The Mount Abraham school board is asking voters to approve $32.6 million for major renovations to the nearly 50-year-old structure, which has not undergone significant upgrades since it was built in the late 1960s. If approved, it would be the largest bond in the history of Addison County.
Residents have weighed in on both sides on a decision that will be made on Election Day, Nov. 4. The Addison Independent has so far published nine letters to the editor on the subject, including some in today’s pages, and in this past Thursday’s edition Editor Angelo Lynn added his two cents in an editorial after touring the school himself.
The online Front Porch Forum has also seen many posts — both pro and con — on the subject.
Jeff Wojcik wrote Oct. 21 on FPF that he thought the bond was simply too expensive, but feared it would pass anyway.
“Thirty-two million dollars seems like another fiscally irresponsible endeavor that sadly is likely to be passed by our community,” he said. “Taxes are astronomical here in petite little Bristol … please consider the harm and damage you are inflicting on your fellow taxpayers.”
Steve and Stacie Ayotte, who last month disparaged the new playground on the Bristol green, on Oct. 17 announced their opposition to the bond proposal. They said the tax increase would be too much for residents to bear and discourage new families from moving to the area.
Jim Feldhousen urged his neighbors to vote “no” on the bond. He argued that the renovations would improve the building, but not the quality of education students receive.
“With the smaller number of students each year, we should be focusing on reducing costs, not increasing them,” he wrote. “Many Bristol residents are on a fixed income and cannot afford to spend an extra $500 a year on property taxes.”
Feldhousen’s estimate, which was repeated by others on the forum, is higher than the school board estimate, although amounts will depend on home values.
According to figures provided by the board, the first year of the 20-year bond would increase education taxes on a home valued at $200,000 between $274 and $398, depending on the town. That cost would decrease throughout the life of the bond, though the school board has not said by how much.
Other five-town residents implored voters to support the project. Kevin LaRose said the school is in need of improvements. He argued Oct. 27 that the renovation, while expensive, would improve the education of students for decades to come.
“$33 million is a large price. No one can doubt that,” LaRose wrote. “But investing in our school and our children is critical, and can come at no better time than now. The necessary work has been put off too long, and will never be less expensive.”
Ryan Denecker also wrote in support of the proposal. He said he has been impressed with the sense of community at Mount Abraham, and asked fellow residents not to pass up an opportunity to improve the school.
“With all the lessons we teach and examples we set we must not forget that these lessons are learned from both positive action, and lack of any action,” Denecker wrote.
Engaged residents have also sent letters, both for and against the project, to the Independent.
In a piece published Oct. 23, Ellen Michaud said she believed the school is in need of repairs, but balked at the price tag.
“My taxes went up $200 annually last year and will go up another $360-plus this year if the $32.6 million bond is approved,” Michaud wrote.
She said many of her neighbors in Starksboro can’t afford a tax hike that large.
“In a town in which the median income is $58,000 before taxes — and a town in which 16 percent are below the poverty line — that is not something we can afford,” she wrote. “And, unfortunately, affordability is likely to be pretty much the same for Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton and New Haven.”
Jim Brown of Lincoln, in a letter published in this paper Oct. 23, said he’s worried that the new renovation won’t preserve the school’s shop classes.
“Currently I am not supporting a bond vote for $32.6 million, and will not support any bond vote that does not include dedicated shops for a structured and supervised hands-on learning experience,” Brown opined.
Porter Knight of Bristol wrote in an Oct. 23 letter that the bond project is in the long-term interests of the community. She argued that rather than scare potential homebuyers away with high taxes, the renovation will attract families to ANeSU.
“Good schools sell real estate,” Knight wrote. “A modern up-to-date school will attract families to our five-town area.”
If past bond votes are any indicator, the odds are stacked against supporters of the project.
Since 2000, ANeSU voters rejected a bond proposal for the school that totaled $12.5 million, then said no to a scaled-down plan for $9.3 million. Ultimately, voters decided they could stomach a $3.45 million bond, with 30 percent of the sum covered by Montpelier.
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, and will take longer to pay off.

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