Mount Abe plans for repairs to building: $1 million slated for facility upkeep

BRISTOL — Next month Bristol-area residents will vote on a proposed Mount Abraham Union High School budget that lowers overall spending but adds $1 million earmarked for repairs to the 48-year-old building.
Addison Northeast Superintendent Patrick Reen acknowledged at last Tuesday’s Mount Abe school board meeting that the building repair line item means tax rates would rise more than they might have. But he said the building’s deficiencies need to be addressed, particularly in light of the emergency gym floor repair last fall that cost an unbudgeted $200,000.
“I think we can no longer afford to not address the facility,” Reen told the board.
The board that night approved the 2017-2018 spending of $12,261,839, which Reen said included no reductions in staffing or programming in the budget proposal.
Building repairs were on the table in any case.
Board members considered two budgets: a budget allotting $250,000 for renovations and repairs that put total spending at $11,511,839; and a budget allotting $1 million for renovations and repairs that put the total at $12,261,839. The pocketbook difference between the two budgets, according to Reen, was about a nickel more on the tax rate for the higher budget, or, about $50 for every $100,000 of assessed value of a home.
In all other ways the two budgets were identical.
“It’s really about fiscal responsibility,” said Reen in the discussion leading up to the vote.
“I think we’ve reached a point where for Plan B to be ‘do nothing’ doesn’t work anymore. We’ve done that for quite a long time, and we’re starting to face some real issues. And there are issues that we don’t even know about that are just waiting around the corner — that’s what scares me most.”
He said the emergency gym repairs focused the attention of the board and administration on the need to raise the money to fix the building.
A water leak discovered in September destroyed the MAUHS gym floor and made the gym off limits to all student and community activity well into December. The bill for repairs to the plumbing that caused the leaks and replacement of the gym floor currently totals $202,025, and Mount Abe Principal Jessica Barewicz said there is “still some water pipe lining work to go.”
Reen gave examples of other kinds of big-ticket items already on the renovation to do list, including work on the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and asbestos abatement. ANeSU Facilities Director Alden Harwood told the board asbestos abatement alone could cost $1 million. After the meeting, Reed said other facilities projects could include a sprinkler system for fire protection and upgrading the elevator to code.
“I don’t think it would be a lot of work to identify projects that would utilize that amount of money ($1 million budgeted) for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Most board members agreed on the need for a larger fund for repairs.
“The school is in some serious need of improvement and being taken care of,” Bristol’s Kris Pearsall said.
But board member Carol Eldridge of Bristol said residents in her town already face higher tax bills for the new firehouse and increased police spending.
“I don’t see how people are going to be able to afford this budget,” she said.
The board at the meeting also agreed to form a committee of community members to assess the building’s needs. The group is charged with coming up with a plan and a price tag by August and putting a bond to pay for repairs to voters, possibly as early as next November.
Asked how the budget’s money earmarked for repairs fit in with a bond, Reen explained that $1 million is roughly equivalent to the payment on a 20-year bond for $20 million at current interest rates. If the committee/board were to propose and voters to approve such a bond, the budgeted funds would go to that payment. If no bond is proposed or if a bond proposal gets voted down, then that money will still be put into the facility.
Reen said a bond and the kind of long-ranging planning it would make possible would allow the district to achieve economies of scale.
The two budgets then came to a vote the higher figure passed, 9-1, with Eldridge voiced the sole dissent.
The $12,261,839 spending plan proposed for 2017-2018 represents an 8.42 percent decrease over the current year’s $13,389,914 budget that was approved by ANeSU voters in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro.
However, even though the total budget has decreased by $1,128,075, the amount to be raised by taxes has gone up. The budget proposal calls for $12,033,024 to be raised by taxes — 5.65 percent more than the  $11,389,182 raised by taxes for 2016-2017.
Exact tax rate estimates for each town were not available for this story.
As previously reported in the Independent, this year the ANeSU central office has created simplified budget categories, so district schools can more clearly communicate with the public about budget choices and priorities.
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.
Looking at the proposed 2017-2018 budget, spending on:
•  Teaching & Learning is $6,823,176, up 2 percent.
•  Student Support Services is $837,435, up 7 percent.
•  Co-Curricular is $441,310, up 5 percent.
•  Leadership and Business, which includes facilities upkeep and renovation, among other things, is $1,856,222, up 43 percent.
•  Purchased Services is $1,856,222, down 46 percent.
Changes in the Purchased Services line item reflect a change in how federal special ed funds and state transportation funds are accounted for, Reen said. Previously, funds for these services first flowed into the schools themselves, then through the central office and back to the schools. This year funds for these services first flow directly into the district office.
Reen emphasized there are no reductions in staffing or programming.
“In fact, there’s some emphasis placed on increasing supports for proficiency-based learning, which Mount Abe is very much at the forefront of and is a requirement through the Legislature,” he said.
Asked how the district would communicate with citizens about maintaining staffing and programming while calling for a tremendous increase in spending on the facility, Reen said: “It’s really about outcomes and opportunities for students.
“When we start looking at reductions in personnel and program, we have to think very carefully about what is the impact on the opportunities for providing for students and the outcomes that that represents.
“We don’t take that lightly at all. At the same time we recognize that we can’t ignore the facility.”
How does the condition of the facility affect learning?
“Should some emergency situation arise — that could absolutely have an impact on learning, much as the gym floor did,” Reen said. “Thinking a little bit more big picture, I think the facility ought to represent and reflect the high expectations that we have for the work that students and adults are doing there.
“And beyond that I think a facility ought to reflect the pride a community has in its youth and what we’re providing for them. I’m not sure that the current state that the Mount Abe facility is in reflects either of those.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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