Vote on Mount Abe bond scheduled for Town Meeting Day: Committee asks architects for two proposals cheaper than $30M

BRISTOL — Five-town voters will get to cast their ballots on a third bond proposal to renovate the 50-year-old Mount Abraham Union High School facility on Town Meeting Day, and the amount requested will likely be under $30 million.
The Mount Abe Renovation Committee approved the March 6, 2018, vote at a meeting this past Wednesday.
“Speaking with (architects) Dore & Whittier, we found that if we should get a positive bond vote in March that would be at the very end of the possible timeline to still start construction in 2019,” Committee Chair Kris Pearsall said. “So without having to organize a special vote and having the availability of many more voters on Town Meeting Day we decided to do that.”
The committee still has plenty of work to do between now and then to rework a $35 million renovation plan that was defeated on Nov. 2 by voters in Bristol, Starksboro, New Haven, Lincoln and Monkton.
For one, it has yet to approve a new bond amount. The committee plans to hold a Jan. 8 public forum at which it will present two project proposals and seek public feedback, Pearsall told the Independent on Thursday.
“People have said that they wanted options,” she said. “People will be able to come to the Jan. 8 meeting to review the proposed concepts and help us decide on one that the voters of the five towns feel would be supported.”
The committee needs to make its recommendation on a bond amount by mid-January, Pearsall said. After the committee votes, the bond must be approved by Addison Northeast Superintendent Patrick Reen and then the full Mount Abe board in time to be legally warned for Town Meeting Day.
In the lead up to the Nov. 2 vote, Reen said repeatedly that January was the latest a bond revote with a “yes” outcome could happen and still allow construction to begin in 2019. The school district has told five-town voters that delaying construction beyond 2019 could cost taxpayers an estimated $1.7 million a year.
But in a series of school meetings after Nov. 2, residents came out in large numbers and asked that the vote be delayed until town meeting in order to get a higher voter turnout. The $35 million bond proposal was defeated by only 93 votes, but only 32 percent of ANESU voters cast ballots.
Pearsall said the next step will be to formally request an extension of the committee’s charge at the Dec. 19 Mount Abe board meeting. When the committee was reinstated on Nov. 20, it was charged with making a recommendation on a new bond amount and a new date for a bond vote by Dec. 19.
According to Pearsall, the committee is now considering two possible price tags for Mount Abe renovation: $25 million and $29 million.
She said the committee is going back to Dore & Whittier to ask for new project proposals targeted to each of those amounts. At either cost, Pearsall said the committee wants to see proposals that accomplish the 10 priorities that have come up repeatedly (These 10 priorities are listed in the box with this story).
The proposed library and tech ed renovations are linked, as tech ed would be moved to the back of the building, where the library is now located.
As has been explained by school district Facilities Manager Alden Harwood, required code and safety improvements on a large renovation project are linked to renovation costs. Different total project costs trigger different code and safety upgrades.
The committee plans to have the two proposals sketched out at the Jan. 8 meeting, so that the public has something concrete to look at, compare and give feedback on.
“A lot of people have stated they need to be able to see it, so that’s why we’re not just slashing things off the line and saying ‘We’re going to go with this,’” Pearsall said. “We’re actually asking it to be conceptual drawings so that people can see the two options and go from there. We’ll have those set up for people to see.”
Asked about the proposals from various community members to build a new school entirely, Pearsall reiterated Dore & Whittier’s estimates from August.
“They quoted us at that point $325-$350 a square foot for new construction vs. $170 a square foot for the $36.6 million project. These (the requested $25 million or $29 million proposals) would obviously be less.”
Pearsall noted that some of the new construction ideas being proposed by various citizens use a national average, rather than the cost of new construction in New England, which has among the highest building costs in the country. She said the committee would also be posting on its Facebook page, recent articles comparing the higher cost of building schools to other kinds of construction.
“The quality and the standards for what goes into a school are much different. You can’t go to Home Depot and buy the average doorknob and put it in a school because it’s going to get used hundreds of times in a day not just the once or twice that a homeowner uses it,” she said.
Pearsall also added that the Jan. 8 date could change depending on Dore & Whittier’s availability and on how quickly the architectural firm can do the work. She said the committee wants to get public feedback at that meeting and then vote within a few days.
“We want voters of the five towns to come out and help us decide this. We don’t want to put something out that’s not going to be supported.”

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