Monkton asks Mt. Abe bond questions

MONKTON — Some citizens at Monday’s Addison Northeast Supervisory Union information session on a proposed $35 million school building bond were all for it. But a question about the cost to taxpayers proved to be a sticking point for some at the meeting.
Attendees wrestled with the statement by supporters of the Mount Abraham Union High School renovation plan that the proposed 2017 $35 million bond would result in a smaller tax increase than the proposed 2014 $32.6 million bond that voters defeated.
“I’m tripping over the comparison,” Monkton resident Peter Straube said. “Something feels weird that we can borrow more money at half the cost. Somebody’s paying that. Somebody’s paying it, and I think it’s the taxpayers.”
This kicked off the evening’s most extended discussion.
School officials project that the proposed $35 million bond will result in a tax increase of $87.60 per $100,000 in assessed value; whereas the smaller 2014 bond proposal would have meant a $153.39 tax increase. The difference is that in 2014 no part of the budget was allocated to school repairs or construction services. By contrast, current and projected annual budgets include $1 million annually to be spent on repairs year after year; Superintendent Patrick Reen and other bond proponents say that same $1 million could be folded into a bond payment over roughly that same time.
As the conversation with Straube went back and forth school officials articulated that:
•  The current $1 million for construction services stays in the Mount Abe budget whether it goes to emergency repairs or bond payments. And the total cost of renovation is estimated at $36.6 million ($35 million of which is to be met by the bond; $1.6 million of which is to come out of the fiscal 2018 and 2019 construction services line items).
•  That $1 million came from reallocating $250,000 in the budget for boiler payments now retired, and reallocating $750,000 from other parts of the budget. School officials did not itemize where in the budget the other $750,000 had come from, but said that at the meeting that that money was pulled from other places not “added from out of the air.”
•  The fiscal 2018 budget, the first to include the $1 million allocated to construction services, lowered the Mount Abe budget overall.
Looking at the record, the Mount Abe fiscal 2018 budget of $12.3 million was 8.42 percent lower than the $13.4 million budget passed for fiscal 2017. However, while the fiscal 2018 budget was $1.1 million lower than the previous year’s, the amount to be raised by taxes did increase; $11.4 million was raised by taxes for last year, compared to $12 million this year.
“Yeah, and where does the money for the budget come from? It comes from the taxpayer,” Straube said. “So that’s why I’m having a problem with this because it’s making it look like that million dollars is free, basically. It’s just sort of money that’s there. It’s not. It’s coming from a different place. So that’s why I have a problem. It looks disingenuous. That’s what troubles me.”
What Straube seemed to be objecting to, and what the district has not provided in its arguments, is a statement of the overall, total annual cost to taxpayers of the bond, as distinct from the increase in current taxes.
Reen conceded a point, but tried to answer Straube’s question in a different way.
“I think your point is it’s all taxpayer dollars. True,” Reen said. “The difference that we’re trying to highlight here is the last time when the bond went out there was no money in the budget that could have been allocated to pay for the principal and interest. This time we’re going for a bond there is $1 million already that can be used to pay for the principal and interest … The intent is to show the impact of a yes and compare that to the impact of a yes last time.”
Reen concluded by emphasizing the importance of each five-town resident taking time to vote.
“The reality is Nov. 2. We can think what we want. It’s the people who show up and vote that make the decision. So I think what everybody wants here, what we would all consider a success is if we have a good turnout and we feel confident that the decision that was made is the will of the electorate.”
Looking ahead, the Lincoln forum will be held Oct. 23, and the Bristol forum and tours of the high school will be held Oct. 25. On Oct. 23 ANESU representatives will attend the Monkton selectboard meeting and on Oct. 25 representatives will attend a meeting of the American Legion to discuss the proposed renovation and Nov. 2 bond vote.
In his opening remarks, Reen provided a brief history lesson, reminding voters that the school first opened its doors to students in the fall of 1968.
“It’s 50 years later now, and we’re at a point where we need to think about the next 50 years and take care of the building and create something that will last and function for that long. This is an opportunity to create a safe, functional building for decades to come,” said Reen.
Major renovation projects since 1968 have included the addition of the middle school wing in 2005, the installation of the woodchip boiler in 2007 and the replacement of the gym floor in 2016, said Reen, but the state of the building is such that the $1 million in repairs budgeted for fiscal year 2018 and 2019 should be thought of as a permanent budget fixture.
As on other occasions, Reen highlighted the choice between paying for repairs as needed, and dealing with emergencies as happened with the gym floor in 2016, or getting more bang for the buck with a planned renovation financed by a bond.
He highlighted challenges the aging structure presents today, including:
•  An overall tired looking building.
•  Little daylight due to lack of windows.
•  Poor air circulation.
•  Pass-through classrooms.
•  Aging plumbing.
•  Restroom and locker rooms in poor condition.
•  An auditorium at the end of its useful life.
•  Outdated science labs.
•  A single gym facility for grades seven through 12 that creates a 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. practice schedule for student sports and sends some teams to practice at Bristol Elementary School. Middle school teams playing basketball each get 30 minutes using half the gym and then spend the rest of their practice time in the hall.
Monkton resident George Parker asked about the cost of a new building and the impact on learning during renovation.
Reen said that a new building of the same square footage was estimated at $70 million to $80 million. Then Reen and other board members explained that the renovation would take place year round over two to two and a half years. The new gym would be built first and then be used as a “swing space” for the classroom being renovated, as construction moved from one part of the building to another.
Parker voiced his support for the renovation, saying: “I’m behind it 100 percent.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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