School repairs take focus in Mount Abe budget proposals

BRISTOL — Five-town residents got a first look at two very different kinds of fiscal year budget scenarios for Mount Abraham Union High School, at a recent forum.
One budget included roughly $250,000 for ongoing repairs on the 47-year-old Bristol facility. The other sketched out what payments could look like on a 20-year, $20-million bond, which is considered the minimum needed to adequately renovate the building.
Mount Abe Principal Jessica Barewicz (see related story) said school administrators wanted to be financially responsible and build a budget around the real cost of building restoration rather than pass a bond and wonder where the payment would come from.
“It really allows us to be more intentional,” she said.
“We know the building has significant needs. We’ve put a significant amount of resources into the facility just to maintain it as it is. And so it’s really about communicating that it is more fiscally responsible to actually go through the bond process, significantly upgrade and renovate the school, rather than just bleed the budget slowly year after year just to maintain the status quo.”
The costs and disruptions of the kinds of emergency repairs that can come with an aging facility were brought front and center for the Mount Abe community earlier this fall when plumbing leaks destroyed the gym floor. Organizers of PE classes, sports practices and school and community events had to scramble for other locations or reschedule as work progressed from October through the first part of December.
The cost of those emergency repairs is estimated to be roughly $165,000, Barewicz said. But she emphasized that it’s premature to give final numbers as related work is still being done.
“We don’t have final numbers yet. The floor was just barely finished yesterday,” she said.
Even with the floor itself finished, Barewicz explained that one of the school’s locker rooms is still torn up as workers “examine the pipes and make sure that we don’t jeopardize the floor with any issue.”
Funds to repair the gym floor and leaking plumbing were allocated from an emergency fund.
Gym floor aside, Barewicz said that it’s open knowledge that the building needs repairs for such things as removing asbestos, repairing or replacing plumbing in other areas, repairing electricity, and continuing to upgrade ventilation.
At its Nov. 11 meeting, the Mount Abe school board formed a building renovation study committee. The board will better define the committee and its charge at the next meeting, taking into account how to best incorporate and build on the work of the previous study committee. In November 2014, voters defeated a $33 million bond to renovate Mount Abe.
Right now Barewicz emphasized the importance of the two budget options as a way to engage the community, so that spending on the facility can come about through thoughtful, long-range planning, rather than just responding to emergencies.
“Students deserve a safe and functional learning environment. So it’s making sure that no matter what happens we are able to provide that,” she said. “When you think about the hidden curriculum, students respond to the facility and it really does show how much we value them.”
In a detailed interview with the Independent, Barewicz explained that her overall goal this year is to craft a fiscally conservative, level-service spending plan that maintains the integrity of educational programming.
“There is no wiggle room in this budget,” Barewicz said. “I enjoy being a visionary and achieving it in a very conservative, thoughtful way.”
Without a bond payment, Barewicz’s preliminary spending plan would call for voters to approve $12,346,076 in spending for the fiscal year beginning next July 1. This amount represents a close to 8 percent drop from the $13,389,914 voters approved last year.
With a bond payment, Barewicz’ preliminary spending plan asks voters to approve $13,096,076, a 2 percent drop from last year’s budget.
After factoring in an early projection of revenues, the “no bond” budget would result in a 0.5 percent increase in the amount to be raised by taxes over last year. The “$20 million bond” budget would result in a 7.17 percent increase in the amount to be raised by taxes.
This year, the central office has created simplified budget categories to be used at all five elementary schools in the Addison Northeast towns of Bristol, Starksboro, Monkton, New Haven and Lincoln. The Teaching and Learning category covers teaching staff. Student Support Services covers guidance counselors, school-based clinicians and the like. The Co-Curricular category is for all afterschool sports, clubs and activities. Leadership and Business covers a range of items, including administration and facilities. Purchased Services covers such items as special education, food services and transportation that are now handled through the central office.
Using these categories, this year’s budget makes no more than micro-shifts in the Teaching and Learning, Student Support Services, and Co-Curricular categories. Spending on Teaching and Learning is down by $19,187, Student Services is down by $15,980 and Co-Curricular spending is up by $21,794.
Barewicz emphasized that her plan is to keep teaching staff at current levels. And she explained that what looks like a slight decrease in Teaching and Learning dollars has more to do with how actual numbers shifted as teachers retired or moved on over the past year.
The significant change in both versions of the budget are in facilities expenses, under the Leadership and Business category. The “no bond budget” proposes a spending increase of $146,830. The “$20 million bond” budget proposes a spending increase of $896,830.
One important footnote to this year’s numbers: Projected revenue appears to about $900,000 lower than last year. “Purchased Services” appear to be about $1.2 million lower. These seemingly huge changes (which in effect cancel each other out) result from a change in accounting methods that now routes things like federal special education funds directly through the central office rather than in a round about way through schools first and then the central office and then back to the schools.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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