Letter to the editor: New Mount Abe project in the works

In late November, the five-town community came together for a consensus building exercise to establish priorities for renovating the aging Mt. Abraham facility. The Independent covered the event and you can find the story in their archives, along with many other articles about this project. 
To summarize the November meeting, survey data gathered from the users of the building (students, faculty and staff) was distributed and independently reviewed by those present. Facilitated by Jess Barewicz, school principal, each person present was invited to speak their own priorities for this renovation project and lists were created. Following several rounds of voting on the lists, and subsequent compilation, the items were ordered.
The physical needs of the building identified as important were not surprising and didn’t vary much from prior survey results; additional gym space, improved air circulation, natural/improved lighting, updated science classrooms, safety (building, student, ADA, fire code, security), consolidating tech education classrooms on the main level, etc. Priorities related to the process but not the physical space were predominately fiscal responsibility and community involvement.
The renovation committee has employed many tools to engage the community: public meetings, availability of the agendas, meeting minutes and updates through the ANESU website, Northeast Addison TV videos, Front Porch Forum (FPF) postings, and Facebook. Despite this, the voter turnout for the last bond request was low.
A group of community members has also begun meeting to discuss the project within the context of a larger vision for the future of the five-town area. All of this work is in hopes of increasing community involvement in the Mt. Abraham renovation process and enticing voters to the polls.
The next vote on a revised project budget is anticipated on Town Meeting Day, March 6, 2018. The amount of the bond request is still being debated and new meeting dates are being sorted out now. A meeting to review recent discussions with the architect and the most current survey results has been added to the schedule for Dec. 14, at 6 p.m. Watch for additional postings on FPF and Facebook as more meetings are scheduled. Share this information with your friends and neighbors in the community and encourage them to attend these important events with you.
Fiscal responsibility is a catch phrase that, at its heart, covers the wide variety of considerations applicable when it comes to spending money. For some people, it’s as simple as spending a small amount of money and “making do” with any shortcomings of the project caused by this perspective. For others, it is a complicated process of discovering needs, identifying possible solutions, and determining a budget in order to establish the most detailed and inclusive plan possible.
While both approaches have been discussed, the renovation committee has grappled with this project from the latter of these two approaches. Here I explore several topics integral to financial discussions of the renovation project.
1.      Scope of Project: The discussions include a wide variety of possible projects that could be included in the Mt. Abraham renovation. Sizing this project adequately to carry the school through the next 50 years is believed prudent. If we don’t utilize this approach, we will need to come back to this same table in 10-15 years because we shortchanged this project. Construction cost escalation averages about 5 percent per year and this same work will cost significantly more at that time.
2.      Wants versus Needs: This is a term that adds complications to determining the appropriate scope for the project. I will borrow the succinct words of community member Jill Jemison, who spoke during the public comment portion of our last meeting. “Your want is another person’s need.”
To highlight this, an article recently written for the school newspaper by a student who must use the elevator multiple times a day was shared with those assembled. This student discussed how the location and condition of the single elevator adds to the difficulties caused by her mobility challenges.
For example, if she must move from a classroom on the first floor to one on the second floor, she needs first to travel to the building entrance to use the elevator before making her way to the second classroom. If both classrooms are on the south end of the building, this means a total distance of approximately a quarter mile. The negative impact of this on her ability to focus on learning was also discussed in her article. Will we serve our children if we term a second elevator as a “want” rather than a “need?”
3.      Debt: Especially with a large project, locking in the lowest interest rate possible is an absolute necessity. There is a discussion floating around that the interest rate attached to the last bond proposal was 5 percent. This is inaccurate. At the time of the last bond vote, the interest rate used to calculate the impact of the bond was 3.75 percent. As economists expect the Federal Reserve to continue raising interest rates, this number will move up.
As it does, less of the eventual amount bonded will be available for actual construction as it shifts to interest payments. In this regard, time is expensive.
4.      Value: One of the ways to maximize value for the budget requires seeking multiple quotes for the work. Once the community has agreed on the amount of funds available and the building design is finalized, the project goes out to bid. This process employs competition and the best bid for each piece of the project is chosen. The more local contractors whose bids are selected, the better for our community.
5.      Transparency: As I wrote above, the community has been invited to the table during every step of the process and information has been distributed in a variety of ways. It is heartening to have our fellow community members filling the chairs and speaking up during the meetings.
Of course, the conversations go further than a single letter to the editor can hope to contain. Please come take part in the process and help us find the right solutions for our middle/high school.
Denise Dalton

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