School officials hit the road to build support for $35 million Mount Abe bond

BRISTOL — With the vote on the proposed $35 million Mount Abraham Union High School renovation bond just three weeks away, school officials, board members and community supporters are out in force, reaching out to the five-town community.
Venues for face-to-face meetings with voters include the Starksboro town dump, Bristol Harvest Festival, general stores in Lincoln and New Haven, church and community luncheons, school open houses and other gatherings of local groups like the Masons and American Legion. Community forums are scheduled in all five Addison Northeast Supervisory Union towns and spokespeople for the bond are on selectboard agendas this month in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro.
“We want to answer as many questions as we can so that people can make their own best decision and vote on Nov. 2,” said Mount Abe school board member Kris Pearsall. The Bristol resident chaired the ANESU committee that investigated Mount Abe’s renovation needs and made a recommendation to ANESU Superintendent Patrick Reen.
She also chairs the committee now tasked with voter outreach.
Pearsall is encouraging townspeople to attend an upcoming event to get their questions answered (see listing in box with this story). Those unable to attend can email questions to Pearsall, Reen or MAUHS Principal Jessica Barewicz.
“If a group approached us and wanted to speak to us, we’d do our best to get out there,” Pearsall added.
Monday night found Reen, MAUHS board member Allison Sturtevant and outreach committee member Kevin LaRose in front of the Bristol selectboard.
Reen emphasized that if one agrees that after 50 years of use the building needs renovation then now is the most fiscally responsible time to act. Among the key points in Reen’s presentation:
•  Construction costs are estimated to increase at a rate of 5 percent a year.
•  Given that rate, the $32.6 million voted down in 2014, would now cost closer to $38 million.
•  Interest rates are predicted to rise.
•  In 2014, $0 was allocated for repair in the Mount Abe budget; for the 2017-2018 school year, ANESU budgeted $1 million. If there is no bond, Reen expects that $1 million annual allocation for repairs to continue indefinitely — based on the age and condition of the school and the current repair list.
•  Because the annual budget already allocates $1 million a year for renovation, the 2017 bond raises taxes far less than in 2014. The $32.6 million bond in 2014, was projected to raise taxes by $153.39 per $100,000 of assessed value. The 2017 bond is projected to raise taxes by $87.60 per $100,000 of assessed value.
•  If the November bond passes, construction would begin the summer of 2019 (allowing for an 11-month design process plus time to bid the project out to the various contractors). If a bond does not pass by January 2018, construction of the proposed renovation project couldn’t begin until the summer of 2020. School officials estimate that that one-year delay would cost the district over $4 million in increased expenses.
Bristol selectboard members posed a variety of questions about ways to pare the renovation budget. They also asked how the tax rate would affect each ANESU town, about differences between the 2014 proposal and the 2017 one, and what was being proposed for the athletic fields.
Reen answered that essential repairs and code upgrades come to around $17 million but that he doubted that that kind of bare bones approach would ultimately satisfy five-town residents.
“I don’t know that taxpayers want to put that kind of money into a building and walk in and have it look pretty much the same as before you did that work,” he said.
He said the priorities list given to the architects came out of extended discussions with stakeholders, both in 2017 and in 2014, and that the architects had been asked to achieve as many of those priorities as they could in as cost-effective a way as possible.
Reen gave two examples of 2017 solutions that get more bang for the buck than those proposed in 2014. Rather than cutting light wells into the roof, the 2017 plan focuses on allocating class space closer to available natural light. Rather than switching where all utilities enter from the front to the back as in 2014, the 2017 moves the library to the front but keeps the utilities there too.
Selectman Joel Bouvier noted that “we’ve gone 50 years without a major renovation” and drew attention to the big price tag likely lurking behind the school walls.
“We saw that with the gymnasium floor that bubbled right up and the rotted pipes. And there’s more rotted pipes over there that are going to show their ugly head,” Bouvier said.
Selectman Peter Coffey agreed, saying: “Whether this passes, we’re going to pay in the next 50 years because we’re going to have the gym issues somewhere else.”
Coffey, Vergennes Union High School principal for a number of years, noted that when Vergennes went through this same process 20 years ago, having a second gym in the new facility “made all the difference.”
Bouvier and selectboard members Michelle Perlee and John “Peeker” Heffernan each noted the difficulties caused by one gym being shared by both the middle and high school.
“We have kids going to basketball practice at 5:30 in the morning and the last team practices at 10:30, 11 at night,” observed Bouvier.
Adding a students’ eye view on the lack of natural light in the building, LaRose said: “There’s my kids and other kids that do not see the light of day from 8:15 to 2:45. Do not see the light of day.”
Reen emphasized that he feels responsible as a superintendent and a taxpayer to be fiscally responsible.
“Waiting is the least responsible thing,” he said. “If we agree we need to do something, the longer we wait the less fiscally responsible we’re being.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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