School board gives OK for $35 million Mt. Abe bond vote

BRISTOL — A vote on a $35 million bond to renovate the 48-year-old Mount Abraham Union High School will definitely take place in November.
The Mount Abe school board this past Wednesday evening voted 8-1 in favor of the recommended major overhaul of the building.
“I think initial reaction will be sticker shock,” said board member Sandy Lee of Lincoln. “But if we don’t invest in this multimillion-dollar building are we going to let it just fall apart?”
During discussion before the board vote, Lee pointed out that it the school had to make an emergency fix to the gym floor last fall and there are other things that will need to be addressed. “This building at some point is going to become even more expensive to fix,” she said.
The date for residents of Bristol and the four other Addison Northeast Supervisory Union towns to go to the polls has tentatively been set for Thursday, Nov. 2.
In addition to Lee, board members in favor of holding the vote were Bristol’s Kris Pearsall, Allison Sturtevant and Thomas Darling; Lincoln’s Barry Olson; Monkton’s Dawn Griswold; New Haven’s Jim McClay; and Starksboro’s Steve Rooney. Carol Eldridge of Bristol voted against.
The vote comes after years of discussion about what to do about the aging building. In 2014 voters rejected a $32.6 million bond to renovate Mount Abe by a 3 to 1 margin.
After the most recent five-month planning process, the 17-member Mount Abraham Renovation Committee in early August recommended a $35 million bond to ANESU Superintendent Patrick Reen and the school board. Reen outlined his reasons for favoring passage of the bond.
For one, the impact of bond repayments this time around would be less than in 2014.
The $32.6 million bond in 2014 was projected to increase taxes in the first year of repayments by around $153.39 per every $100,000 in a home’s value. The $35 million bond in 2017 is expected to increase homestead taxes in the first year by about $87.60 per $100,000 of assessed value. The reasons the tax rate would go down even though the size of the bond is going up are twofold:
1. ANESU had budgeted $0 for construction costs in 2014 so taxpayers would have felt the full brunt of the bond payment, but for 2017 ANESU has budgeted $1 million for construction so taxpayers are already on the hook for 45 percent of the first year bond payment whether there is a bond or not. Officials figure there is $1 million of work that needs to be done on the building this year.
2. Additionally, because five-town voters voted to unify into the Mount Abraham Unified School District, residents will see a three-year reduction in tax rates beginning in fiscal year 2019: 8 cents in fiscal year 2019, 6 cents in fiscal year 2020, and 2 cents in fiscal year 2022. So the increased cost of the bond payments won’t be as obvious to taxpayers than if they hadn’t got the unification tax reductions.
A second key point Reen made was that it would cost more to put off repairs. He noted that both interest rates and construction costs are projected to rise. Current payment estimates are based on an interest rate of 3.75percent.
“We can debate what the work is and how much it should cost, but I don’t think anybody disagrees we’ve got to do some serious work,” Reen said. “Every month we wait costs tens of thousands of dollars. So not acting is much more costly than determining what it is we’re going to do, settle on something, and get it going.”
Reen’s third point, which echoed comments from MAUHS Principal Jessica Barewicz, was that the current look and feel of the Mount Abe building can drive away prospective students and influence families moving to the area to opt for another nearby high school instead.
More families moving to the area can mean a larger grand list and so each taxpayer would shoulder a smaller burden of education costs. Also, more students mean lower per-student costs to fund schooling.
For his fourth point, Reen noted that some feel the building in its current state doesn’t reflect the pride the community feels in its schools; updating the building would reflect community pride.
“A student presenter at the 2017 Mount Abraham commencement ceremony said they, the class of 2017, ‘made it’ despite the fact that the building is falling apart around them,” Reen wrote in his recommendation.
Finally, Reen argued that floating the bond and fixing the school now would head of the costs of emergency repairs later. Last fall leaking pipes resulted in emergency repairs costing $172,000 and disrupted P.E. classes, sports practices and other school and community uses of the gym.
“Not addressing infrastructure needs leaves us vulnerable to future emergency situations like this,” wrote Reen.
Carol Eldridge, the lone dissenting vote on the bond issue, stated her opinion quite simply:
“It’s just too much.”
A number of community members have told Eldridge the same thing. She said that Bristol residents especially have a lot of town bills on their plate, including paying for the new fire station, West Street water system improvements and Lovers Lane water line extension.
Barewicz said at Wednesday’s meeting that the tax incentives from Act 46 plus the $1 million already in the Mount Abe budget annually for ongoing repairs puts the community better in line to “accomplish our dreams without breaking the bank.”
Pearsall, chair of the Renovation Committee, spoke forcefully of the committee’s diligence in keeping costs in line while serving real student needs. “Unfortunately today everything comes with an enormous price tag,” she said. “We looked at it, and we said what do we cut? Everything the plan accomplishes is a priority. The gym space is a priority. We’re keeping the pool that the community wanted. We’re addressing the safety concerns, and all that.
“We know it’s a big dollar amount. We believe in the work.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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