ANESU voters reject $36 million Mount Abe building bond

BRISTOL — Addison Northeast Supervisory Union residents on Thursday rejected a $36.6 million renovation plan for Mount Abraham Union High School by a 1,261 to 1,168 tally.
The close, 93-vote margin of defeat has provided project proponents with a silver lining sense that a third vote could be the charm for getting five-town residents to endorse major repairs to their almost 50-year-old secondary school building.
District voters in 2014 defeated the previous, $32.6 million Mount Abe repair plan by a more substantial, 3,328-to-1,239 margin. An estimated 32 percent of the registered voters in the Addison Northeast-member communities of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro cast ballots on Thursday.
“We’re not done,” said Kris Pearsall, leader of the MAUHS Renovation Committee that helped develop and publicize the bond proposal.
“We’re going to regroup and figure out what our next steps are,” Pearsall said. “We believe in making changes at Mount Abe and we’re not going to give up.”
The plan defeated on Thursday would have provided for some major additions and many repairs to basic infrastructure (see listing below), among other things.
The project also included various code, safety and maintenance improvements, including making the stairways, bathrooms ADA-compliant; installing a new sprinkler system to serve the entire building; putting in new fire alarm and security systems; replacing and/or refurbishing of the entire heating and ventilation system; and removing and replacing lighting, the electrical system and various plumbing fixtures.
It’s a long list of improvements, and project proponents argued they were all needed.
Pearsall said renovation committee members knew they were talking about “a lot of money” when architects presented cost estimates back in August. But committee members decided it would be fiscally irresponsible to parse them out over the years and watch the inflationary increases in construction gobble up more taxpayer money. Construction cost pricing is expected to rise by 5 percent each year, which would translate into an increase of $1.7 million annually for a project of $36 million, according to a district flyer.
“We looked at each other and we said, ‘Gosh, we know it went down in flames last time, what do we cut?’ Pearsall said. “And then we all sat back and looked at it and said we only addressed the priorities that were confirmed by 100 percent of the staff, students and community members. We felt honestly our first effort should be to address all of the priorities, because we wanted to prepare the building for the next 50 years, and not have to come back and ask the town for more money … We tried to be as forward-thinking as possible with this renovation.”
But ultimately, a slight majority of voters decided $36.6 million was too much. If OK’d, the project would have added an estimated $87.60 in property taxes per $100,000 of assessed value.
The proposal also comes at a time when student enrollment in much of the state has been on the decline.
Pearsall acknowledged the bond proposal contained two items that elicited particular debate among Addison Northeast constituents: The call for a second gym and updated mechanical equipment for the school swimming pool.
Committee members explained the second gym was pitched, in large part, to clear up a scheduling jam for the school’s current gym. Some students must currently show up at around 6 a.m. for practice and others don’t leave until after 9 p.m. in order to ensure gym time, according to Pearsall. Still other students don’t play extracurricular sports because they can’t get transportation for irregular times the gym is available, she noted.
District officials acknowledged the sobering size of the bond request.
“I think there was some sticker shock,” Addison Northeast Superintendent Patrick Reen said.
So school leaders must now decide if there’s a new, lower financial request that could address Mount Abe’s building deficiencies and pass muster with local taxpayers.
“It’s going to be tough trying to figure out, if we come back with a lower number, what priority we’d be giving up,” Pearsall said.
“Where is the threshold for a number that produces little enough sticker shock that people can get past that more easily?” Reen said. “It’s really hard to know what that is … It varies from person to person.”
But Reen is now optimistic the district can come up with a plan that can get voter approval.
“For me, the message sent here is, ‘Our community is really serious about putting some money into this building,’” he said of the aftermath of the vote. “To have a $35 million bond vote as close as this was tells me we are almost there as a community in deciding to address some significant needs at our middle-high school. It just tells me maybe we haven’t quite figured it out yet.”
Reen was pleased with the effort the district made in publicizing the renovation plan prior to Thursday’s vote. Officials put out informational flyers, set up a Facebook page and conducted tours of the Mt. Abe building. School leaders hosted informational meetings in each of the five towns. But those meetings were, for the most part, sparsely attended, Reen lamented.
At the same time, district officials found themselves putting out some misinformation fires they said flared up prior to the vote. The district on Thursday morning posted a letter on Front Porch Forum warning of recent instances of “false information” circulating through that daily email service and through unspecified social media. That letter included links to what district officials considered to be reliable information about the project — including six Addison Independent articles.
If the Mount Abe board was to refocus on a building project, it would have to reassemble the renovation committee, which disbanded after it completed its charge of preparing the latest, ill-fated $36.6 million project.
“From my perspective, I don’t see it being so much a matter of ‘if’ another vote comes up,” Reen said. “I think it’s more a matter of ‘when’ and for how much.”
What $36.6 million would buy
The defeated Mount Abe renovation plan would have provided for, among other things:
•  A renovated main entrance with more windows that would allow in more natural light.
•  A second gym oriented toward the rear of the building, with its own event entrance/lobby.
•  A “loop” road so that traffic could circulate around the entire facility, including a rear bus drop-off and delivery docks for service vehicles.
•  Two additional outside terraces for lunchtime use, accessed through the large and small cafeterias.
•  Several skylights to bring in natural light.
•  A relocated library to the front of the building, across the lobby from the main office area.
•  A consolidated shop and design/tech areas on the first floor, taking up much of what is now the library.
•  New locker rooms situated between the pool and the proposed new gym, to serve both areas.
•  A reconfigured band room floor to make it ADA-compliant, along with a larger, partitionable area at the back of the auditorium for chorus classes.
•  An upgraded auditorium with new stage flooring, some new seating, new lighting and new sound equipment.
•  An expanded middle school art area.
•  A number of code, safety and maintenance improvements.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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