Board to consider lower $29.5M fix for Mount Abe

BRISTOL — The Mount Abraham Union High School Board will meet early next month to consider a leaner, $29.5 million budget for an MAUHS renovation plan that would be put to five-town voters on Town Meeting Day in March.
Mount Abraham school directors agreed to take that tack on Tuesday after receiving new information from the MAUHS Renovation Committee. That panel met on Dec. 14 to chart the next steps in getting major repairs for the deteriorating, 50-year-old high school building off Bristol’s Airport Road that delivers secondary education to Addison Northeast Supervisory Union (ANESU) students from Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro.
ANESU voters on Nov. 2 rejected a $36.6 million renovation plan by a 1,261 to 1,168 tally. It was five-town residents’ second try at passing a major repair plan for the MAUHS building, which opened in 1968.
Encouraged by the close margin of the Nov. 2 vote, a re-energized Renovation Committee went back to the drawing board to consider new, less costly project options. Some members considered it important to get a future request below $30 million, acknowledging feedback from many local taxpayers that $36.6 million was too high. Committee members also heard appeals for holding a new bond referendum on Town Meeting Day, when voter turnout is usually high.
Planning for this latest step in the Mount Abe renovation odyssey began in earnest earlier this month, when some renovation committee members met with officials at Dore & Whittier Architects. The group asked Dore & Whittier for two conceptual drawings for a new project — one for $25 million, and one for $29 million. Committee members asked that both versions include, to the greatest extent possible, the community’s top nine construction priorities: A second gym, better lighting, improved air quality, updated science classrooms, a renovated and relocated school library, an improved lobby/front office, better tech education space, a refurbished auditorium, and removal of the tandem classrooms.
The renovation committee had hoped Dore & Whittier could produce the drawings by Jan. 8, thereby allowing Mount Abe officials time to review the plans and then meet statutory warning requirements for a Town Meeting Day vote. In order to get on the town meeting ballot, the bond proposal would have to be warned at least 30 days — and no more than 40 days — prior to March 6.
Dore & Whittier officials said they couldn’t meet the committee’s Jan. 8 deadline, however, due to the upcoming holidays and other commitments. The company instead asked for a single dollar amount that could meet the nine construction priorities. Dore & Whittier would then provide the requisite conceptual drawing by February, leaving some time to inform five-town residents prior to a March 6 vote.
Lee Dore of Dore & Whittier said he was confident a $29.5 million project would address the community’s priorities — albeit with a few concessions, according to minutes from the renovation committee’s Dec. 14 meeting. For example, Dore said the $29.5 million budget would force a more modest “practice” gym (instead of a second full gym), likely made from pre-engineered steel. Also, fewer skylights and other glass-related work would be accomplished.
“This ($29.5 million) renovation would prepare the school where we wouldn’t be coming back in a few years for something that wasn’t attended to,” renovation committee leader Kris Pearsall said.
Company officials suggested the new practice gym could initially serve as temporary classroom space while other portions of MAUHS are being renovated. The alternative, according to Dore & Whittier, would be to rent portable classrooms at an estimated cost of $1 million.
Reducing the budget to $25 million would mean forgoing some of the community’s priority items, Dore said.
Renovation Committee members voted unanimously (8-0) on Dec. 14 to recommend that the MAUHS board warn a $29.5 bond proposal for next Town Meeting Day, March 6.
Members of the full Mount Abe board said they’ll need a special meeting to fully consider the renovation committee’s recommendation. Members on Tuesday could not come to a consensus on when that meeting will take place; they will decide during the next few days.
Board members will have a lot to consider in deciding whether to hold a third vote on an MAUHS renovation plan.
Due to the town meeting warning requirements, they would have precious few weeks to provide detailed information to the public on the project. They’d like more time to inform residents about all aspects of the plan — including property tax impacts — before voters go to the polls.
“When people vote, there’s a certain assumption that someone must have looked at the details,” Board member Tom Darling said. “We don’t have the details.”
He acknowledged the project details would be ready prior to a March 6 vote, but voiced concern about whether that information would get to residents prior to their trek to the ballot boxes.
“I’m afraid people won’t be positive because they won’t have heard the pitch or won’t know how it’s different, except that it’s smaller,” Darling said.
Board member Allison Sturtevant said it would be difficult and potentially expensive to give people all the project minutiae they might want.
“Part of the problem we have in communicating the bond is that generally, people want the same level of detail as if it were their own home,” Sturtevant said. “We don’t have the ability to do that, and no major school renovation has the ability to do that — unless the board would be willing to spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars on something that we don’t have a guarantee would pass.”
A citizens’ group dedicated to informing people about a new Mount Abe bond vote is planning a Jan. 6 five-town community forum to discuss school needs and possible solutions. The forum is tentatively set to begin at 8:30 a.m. at the Bristol Elementary School cafeteria.
Money — and time — are in short supply. And the old adage of “time is money” rings particularly true in the construction industry. As stated in an Addison Northeast flyer sent to residents prior to the Nov. 2 vote, construction pricing is expected to rise by 5 percent each year. That would lead to an increase of more than $1 million annually for a project the size of Mount Abe’s.
And Pearsall noted the Federal Reserve raised interest rates 0.25 percent earlier this month, with the potential of further increases in the near future.
Mount Abe directors will of course have the ability to reject the renovation committee’s recommendation and set a different budget number, or decide to postpone the next bond vote to a later date.
While the renovation committee has now discounted the option of a $25 million renovation budget, MAUHS board member Sandy Lee said it would still be wise and transparent to offer residents information on how such a price tag would translate into property taxes.
“I think the community should know,” she said. “I definitely hear from the public that people want something to be done, but they really want to know what their options are. Because in the end we are paying for this with our tax bill, and we clearly have to make something happen.”
Lee asked her colleagues to weigh all of the nine project priorities and consider whether they might be willing to sacrifice any for financial reasons.
“If (a $29.5 million project) doesn’t pass, we don’t get any of those nine priorities this year, or do we need to consider that maybe some of those priorities need to be dropped off?” Lee said.
Monkton resident Jessica Demeritt listened intently to the MAUHS board’s discussion on Tuesday. She commended school directors for their work and said she wanted a renovation bond to pass. But she fears $29.5 million might still be too high to earn majority support from five-town residents, based on a recent online survey of potential voters.
“My concern is that going from $35 million to $29.5 million is not enough of a difference to convince them to vote for (the project) again,” Demeritt said. “The reason why people said they wouldn’t vote for it again is because it was too much, and because we need to pay for the ‘needs’ instead of the ‘wants.’”
She credited the renovation committee for making a case that the “needs” and “wants” are “really are the same thing,” and urged officials and boosters to “sell” that premise.
“I want to help sell the bond, but I feel like I can sell it better if it’s a little lower,” Demeritt said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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