$33M bond for Mt. Abe defeated by wide margin

BRISTOL — Not even close. That was the story of the proposed $33 million bond to finance an ambitious renovation of Mount Abraham Union High School, which voters on Tuesday rebuked by a margin of nearly 3 to 1.
When the dust settled, 3,328 Addison Northeast Supervisory Union residents voted against the bond. Just 1,239 cast their ballots in favor of the proposal.
The controversial plan spurred a remarkably high turnout for a midterm election. Less than 1,800 residents voted on Mount Abe’s budget this past Town Meeting Day, while more than 4,500 rushed to the polls on Tuesday.
After the results came in, board chair Dawn Griswold released a statement expressing dismay at the lopsided result.
“Although the board is disappointed in the outcome of today’s vote, we are committed to working to continue to improve and strengthen educational opportunities for the students in our community,” Griswold wrote.
She said the board will pick up the pieces at their next meeting, and discuss the “next steps to address the much needed facilities repairs and upgrades” to Mount Abraham.
Board vice chair Shawna Sherwin on Wednesday summed up her assessment of why voters rejected the bond: money.
“I think it was too much money,” Sherwin said. “What we learned through the process is that while people saw the need (for repairs), it was the number that was scary to them.”
Sherwin said she was surprised not by the outcome of the vote, but the high turnout in all five ANeSU towns. She said that shows that residents are engaged.
“Clearly, there was an interest in the process,” she said. “I think a lot of people came out to vote that wouldn’t typically do so.”
In part because voters are paying close attention to the issue, Sherwin said she hopes to see the board put a new, leaner proposal in front of voters on Town Meeting Day next spring.
How much leaner, and by how much that proposal will differ from the one that voters rejected Tuesday, Sherwin declined to say, positing that it’s just too early to speculate. The school board will meet Nov. 18 to decide how to move forward.
The $32.6 million proposal was the result of more than a year of research by the school board, which created a special committee to brainstorm ideas, reach out to the community and assess the needs of the school.
Major parts of the plan included building a new middle school gymnasium, installing 21st-century communications infrastructure, moving the library and media center to the front of the building, making upgrades to the pool, constructing new bathrooms and locker rooms, updating auditorium lighting and seating and renovating the lobby to improve aesthetics and heighten security. The school has not been substantially renovated since it opened in the late 1960s.
On social media and in letters to the Independent preceding the vote, many residents balked at the plan’s price tag, which would have been by far the largest bond ever passed in Addison County.
The school board did not anticipate any federal, state or private aid to help finance the renovation, leaving the 10,500 ANeSU residents to shoulder the entire burden.
The board estimated that for the first year of the 20-year bond, education taxes on a home valued at $200,000 would increase by between $274 and $398, depending on the town.
Facilities committee member Troy Paradee said he was not surprised that the bond failed, but was hoping the vote would be closer. He said that one positive outcome is that ANeSU voters are now paying attention to the issue.
“The most important thing is that we have everyone’s attention,” Paradee said. “I think everybody recognizes that something needs to be done, it’s just about how much can we afford.”
As for what that magic dollar amount is, Paradee hesitated to speculate, but said the facilities committee would soon begin work on a new proposal.
“There’s about $12 million that’s pretty much required maintenance that has to be done, but what do we want to get beyond that is what we need to figure out,” Paradee said.
He also hopes to see a new proposal in front of voters on Town Meeting Day.
John Clarke, a Starksboro resident who penned a letter to the Independent Oct. 24 panning the proposal, said he would support a future plan with a smaller price tag. He added that he hopes the new proposal focuses more on educational improvements rather than structural ones.
“I’d like to see a lesser amount and one that improves the learning of students,” Clarke said.
Jim Feldhousen of Bristol, who penned a letter against the proposal Oct. 23, said he was relieved to hear it had failed.
He said the school board is out of touch with voters’ appetite for spending, and should be replaced.
“I think the school board has the wrong priorities,” he said. “ I think they should be focusing on improving education as their highest priority. Most of what they proposed had nothing to do with education.”
Feldhousen said he’s not sure if he’d support a less expensive bond proposal and wants to see the school board devote more resources to improving student proficiency.
Rejecting a bond proposal is nothing new for ANeSU voters. In the early 2000s, they said “no” to $12.5 million and $9.3 million renovation proposals before giving the green light to a pared-down $3.5 million plan, with 30 percent of that sum paid for by the state.

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