Citizens ask board to delay vote on Mount Abe bond

BRISTOL — A group of citizens last Wednesday urged members of the Mount Abraham Union High School Board to delay any new bond vote on renovating the Bristol building until Town Meeting Day next March.
“The goal should be 60 percent voter participation with 60 percent voting yes,” said Bristol resident David Brynn, among non-board members in attendance.
On Nov. 2, five-town voters rejected a proposed $35 million bond to renovate the 50-year-old facility by a tally of 1,261 to 1,168, with an estimated 32 percent of registered voters participating. In 2014, voters in the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union defeated a $32.6 million Mount Abe repair plan by a more substantial, 3,328-to-1,239 margin.
The question on the Nov. 2 ballot proposed $36.6 million renovation plan; $35 million would have been paid for by a bond and the rest supplied by the $1 million a year currently in the Mount Abe budget for repairs.
In his comments to the board on Nov. 15, Brynn pointed out that the 2014 ballot saw 60 percent of voters take part, but the 2017 ballot saw only 32 percent of voters take part, and still it couldn’t get enough “yes” votes.
“The other part that’s important to note is that less than 16 percent (of the entire electorate) voted in favor,” he said. “I think that’s really important to keep in mind.”
The Mount Abe board gathered that evening to approve a charge for and reinstatement of the Mount Abe Renovation Committee, which had deliberated from March through August before recommending the $35 million bond. The draft charge before the board asked the Renovation Committee to complete its work by Dec. 1. ANESU Superintendent Patrick Reen has said repeatedly that if the November bond were defeated, he would like to see a vote in January 2018. Reen’s reasoning is that a January 2018 vote is the latest possible date at which a “yes” on a bond would permit construction to begin in 2019 because of the 11-month design process plus addition tasks before construction can begin.
Voting later than January 2018 would delay construction until 2020, Reen has said repeatedly. The last day for Vermont towns to warn items for their 2018 town meetings will be Feb. 4. Meanwhile construction costs are estimated to increase at a rate of 5 percent, or $1.7 million, per year.
Brynn’s counter to that oft-repeated line of reasoning was that delay is “worth every penny.”
“I would say that the charge to the committee should be take time, deliberate, don’t rush, allow the people to participate in the process. It’s democracy,” Brynn said. “People have been out twice. We don’t want it to go down a third time. I think that would be bad for the whole institution. Wait for Town Meeting Day.”
After deliberating last Wednesday, the Mount Abe board voted to extend the Renovation Committee’s deadline for making a recommendation to Dec. 15. The full Mount Abe board would consider the recommendation on Dec. 19. Renovation Committee Chair and Mount Abe board member Kris Pearsall said she has been reaching out to community members who served on the previous board and expects the newly reinstated Renovation Committee to pick up its work again on Nov. 27.
Cost will be front and center at that first meeting, said Pearsall, in a follow-up interview.
“Plans for the Nov. 27 meeting include reevaluating the priorities that the community wants to see in the renovation and the dollar amount they want renovation kept within,” she said. “We really want to put it into the voters hands. We’d like to hear from the community about its priorities at that meeting.”
Pearsall said she encouraged community members to look at Engelberth Construction’s cost breakdown to set their own priorities. The cost breakdown is online at anesu.org, click first on “Mt. Abraham Union Middle/High School Renovation Project 2017” and then on “Link to Architect’s Proposal August 2017.” Click here to see the report.
Brynn and fellow citizens are organizing a meeting for this Saturday, Nov. 25, 8:30-9:15 a.m., at Howden Hall and a community-wide charette (an all-stakeholder brainstorming session) to take place Jan. 6 (details to be announced).
How the Renovation Committee meeting and separate charette can inform each other is still to be seen. And a sense expressed by Brynn that the supervisory union has been more concerned with public relations than with encouraging public participation illustrates the difficulties inherent in community-wide decision-making on an issue of this importance.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Pearsall said she was “heartened to see so many community members at this meeting.”
As indeed she might be.
Wednesday’s post-vote meeting drew more members of the public than all other meetings of the Mount Abe Renovation Committee put together. This includes all meetings from when the committee began its work March 22 to when it completed its work on Aug. 7. Of the nine meetings the committee held during that period — meetings intended to solicit and engage public deliberation — Pearsall estimates that fewer than 10 individuals attended or spoke out, compared to the 12 non-board members who attended last Wednesday. Each meeting began and ended, she said, with allotted time for public input. Meeting agendas and minutes were posted on the school website as stipulated by Vermont Open Meeting law. And continuous announcements were made online through social media, in the newspaper, and committee members urged the five-town citizenry to speak their minds through emails, phone calls and casual conversations.
The formation of the committee itself was first announced this past January, and it appeared in the pages of the Independent repeatedly.
Community members not on ANESU boards made up the heart of the committee, said Pearsall. The 17-member committee was made up of voting and non-voting members. Voting members included seven five-town residents not currently on an ANESU board, two board members (Pearsall and Monkton’s Otto Funke), and two teachers. Non-voting members included Reen, MAUHS Principal Jessica Barewicz, ANESU’s facilities director and chief financial officer, the MAUHS facilities manager, and two more Mount Abe teachers.
In a follow-up interview with the Independent, Pearsall noted that the original Renovation Committee listened when people showed up to express opinions.
Pearsall said she agreed that those now asking for open-ended brainstorming sessions have a good idea, one she believes the reinstated committee will welcome — and one that the committee would have welcomed during its original deliberations.
When asked about the Hinesburg architects who’d offered services to facilitate community deliberations, Pearsall said those architects also wanted the job itself (or at least a good chunk of it) as part of their facilitation services. The committee felt it was more responsible to stick with architectural firm Dore Whittier, given the time and deliberations Dore Whittier had already invested in the process starting in 2013.
As the five-town community continues its deliberations on Mount Abe, Pearsall said she hopes that citizens will strive to be accurately informed (recent discussions have brought their own flurry of opinion, information and misinformation). She also encourages those now enlivening the discussion to remember that “board members are community members too.”
Pearsall said she hopes everyone can work together to keep the needs of the school facility itself front and center.
“From the Renovation committee’s standpoint and being a Mount Abe board member, I think it’s great that more people want to get involved,” she said. “I think we all want to make Mount Abe the best place to be and to give our students what they need to be engaged and challenged and to go out and change the world, if they’re so inclined, and to have the best lives that they choose.
“The more people are engaged with the school, the better the school’s going to be.“
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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