Mount Abe renovation committee wants to match school’s needs to community’s pocketbook

BRISTOL — The Mount Abraham Union High School Renovation Committee is wrestling with how to get the most bang for the buck when refurbishing the nearly 50-year-old high school building in Bristol.
At its May 15 meeting, the committee also strove to establish priorities within a price tag the community would support.
“We heard from the community the last time that the cost was too much,” said committee Chair Kris Pearsall, in a follow-up interview. “So we need to really be clear about what we’re doing and what we’re getting and why.”
The threshold needs of the building are clear, Pearsall said.
“If we do anything at all we want to obviously address the deferred maintenance,” she said. “We want to address as many concerns that the students and staff and community have about the building at a price that the community will support. And we want to be able to explain, ‘We know you value this, but it costs this to do that’ and ‘We thought it was a better use of funds if instead of just addressing A we were able to address B, C, D, E, and F for the same price.’”
The 2017 committee is well aware of the November 2014 vote in which the five towns that support MAUHS — Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro — resoundingly defeated a $32.6 million renovation bond, 3,328 to 1,239. At that time the board said the main reason for the bond’s failure was the price tag.
The committee is not starting from scratch; it is building on the work that led up to the 2014 bond. School building specialists Dore and Whittier in 2014 presented four different plans for renovation, and school and board officials worked for two years finalizing the proposal and engaging the community.
The current Mount Abe Renovation Committee is charged to make a recommendation to Superintendent Patrick Reen — including shaping a potential bond measure — by Aug. 1.
At this past Monday night’s meeting, Hinesburg architects Robert Bast and L. Macrae Rood presented some ideas about how the committee could best engage the community. They have worked on school projects around the state, including in Hinesburg, Craftsbury, Rochester and Williamstown.
Rood noted that while everybody might want a Lamborghini sports car, it was important to assess both needs and wishes and to hone in on a renovation figure that the community will accept and engage in a dialogue to set priorities accordingly.
“The goal is to say, ‘Here’s what these things cost. Let’s together try and figure out what people are going to be willing to afford,’” said Rood.
The two architects also said that this time around it’s important to build on the strength of having gone through a lengthy design-study process already while also staying flexible and open to change as the committee gets in greater dialogue with the community.
The committee discussed findings of 2014 community forums that revealed community interest in improving air quality and ventilation, natural lighting, more welcoming entry design, a second gym, and retaining the pool at Mount Abe.
This led to some discussion about the pool itself, which highlights the tough choices and difficult weighing of needs and priorities the community will face. Committee member Troy Paradee (the only voting member who was also on the 2014 committee) called the pool a “lighting rod.” Mount Abe Athletic Director Devin Wendel described the pool as the most popular room in the building, in terms of community use.
“Being the person who schedules the building, I can tell you that that is the most used room in the school period,” he said. “It’s in use from 5:30 in the morning until 9 o’clock at night for about six months of the year.”
Mount Abe physical education and health teacher Dustin Corrigan provided a teacher’s eye view.
“Compared to a pool, a gym gives so many more options for what you can do for a physical activity,” he said.
He also explained that in the real world, no matter how carefully teachers prep, kids don’t bring their swimsuits. So what happens when important public functions claim the gym and the pool’s the only option?
“I can tell you right now six of the last seven days between the safety fair, the fine arts fest and the blood drive we haven’t had the gym space and so we’ve had to use the pool for classes. And there’s classes where we have 30 kids coming to us and only five of them bring suits. That’s difficult, that’s really difficult.”
Paradee, a Bristol resident and Champlain Valley Union High School educator, said consideration of a pool goes beyond simply teaching students.
“You’d use a second gym 90 percent more than you’d use a pool,” he said. “But the community is very, very adamant about keeping the pool for outside-of-school-day use.”
The committee plans to visit Vermont schools of a similar size that are also grades 7-12 and that have been renovated in the past 15 years. Those schools could include Harwood, Enosburg, Vergennes, Otter Valley, Missisquoi and U-32.
Pearsall said the visits would give committee members a chance to learn from other school buildings and learn from other schools’ experiences.
“We’re going to try to learn from everyone else’s mistakes and take what they found works really well and say, ‘OK, well we can model that but, oh, that didn’t work well,’” she said. “We can take their advice and make it into what would work best for us.”
The committee also decided that one of the most effective ways to move forward would be to have a small subgroup, made up of Reen, Mount Abe Principal Jessica Barewicz, ANeSU Facilities Manager Alden Harwood and Mount Abe Facilities Manager Mike Kenyon, meet with Dore and Whittier. The sub-group (armed with an up-to-date list of repairs and renovations already completed since 2014) would confer with DW to come up with different renovation scenarios at different price points. The larger committee could then consider these differing scenarios.
Dore and Whittier “did the original concepts. They’ve already got that design done, so it’s easy for them to pull and push and change things and give us a rough guesstimate or bring back a concept that the committee wants to investigate further and actually go out for a bid on,” said Pearsall.
“We’re trying to look as far forward as possible so that the school is ready for whatever comes its way. We don’t want another committee to have to do this in 10 years. So to the best of our ability we want to make sure that the school is set for a good long time just like it has been since it was built.”
To learn more, go to the Mount Abe Rev Up Project Facebook page or to the ANeSU website.
Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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