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5 Towns to vote Town Meeting Day on $29.5 million Mount Abe repair bond

BRISTOL — It’s official.
Five-town voters on Town Meeting Day will cast ballots on a revised, $29.5 million renovation plan for Mount Abraham Union High School that would address nine project priorities touted by school officials, albeit to a lesser degree than the $36.6 million proposal that area residents defeated last November.
The MAUHS board on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly in favor of warning the proposed 30-year bond issue for March 6. It will be school directors’ third attempt in three years to get taxpayers’ OK for major repairs to the 50-year-old building that serves students in grades 7-12 from Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro.
“A remodeling of this scale comes only once every half-century or so, and Mt. Abe is certainly due,” Superintendent Patrick Reen told board members. “If we agree that Mt. Abe is in need of some significant work — which I believe we do — I propose we seize the opportunity to, as our vision suggests, ‘shape our future together.’ This is our chance to imagine education 50 years out and do what is necessary now, even though it is at a cost. It will be decades before we will get another chance and the costs, both economic and educational, will continue to grow at a rate greater than our ability to afford them.”
District voters on Nov. 2 rejected a $36.6 million renovation plan by a 1,261 to 1,168 tally. That was after voting down a $32.6 million proposal by a much larger margin in November 2014.
School officials saw the tighter margin of the latest vote as a sign that a majority of MAUSD voters might support a renovation plan if it were pared back. So the school’s Renovation Committee reformed and consulted with project architects Dore & Whittier about the potential for a downsized project.
The committee asked Dore & Whittier for two conceptual drawings for a new plan — one for $25 million, and another for $29 million. Committee members asked that both versions include, to the greatest extent possible, the community’s top nine construction priorities:
•  Second gym.
•  Better lighting.
•  Improved air quality.
•  Updated science classrooms.
•  Renovated and relocated school library.
•  Improved lobby/front office.
•  Better tech education space.
•  Refurbished auditorium.
•  Removal of the tandem classrooms.
Committee members stressed the need to quickly finalize the downsized plan in order to meet a clear signal from 5-town voters that they wanted to field the referendum on Town Meeting Day, when turnout is usually high. In order to get on the town meeting ballot, the bond proposal needs to be warned at least 30 days —and no more than 40 days — prior to March 6.
Based on that tight timeline, Dore & Whittier asked school officials for a single dollar amount that could meet the nine construction priorities.
“The conversation shifted to, ‘What is an amount of money that we think is enough, given what we know, to do much or most of the work that we believe is important based on the priorities that have been set and maintained over the course of the past four years — but will actually pass a vote of the electorate?’” Reen said. “It is that conversation that landed at $29.5 million.”
Architects have told Mt. Abe officials a $29.5 million layout would address the school’s nine construction priorities, with some compromises. Those compromises, according to Reen, will include fewer windows within the proposed “curtain wall” at the front of the MAUHS building, and a smaller second gym.
As the Independent went to press, Dorr & Whittier had yet to furnish MAUSD with conceptual drawings of the $29.5 million project. The school board wants that information as soon as possible, in order to fully explain the proposal to 5-town voters before they go to the polls.
MAUHS board members know they have their work cut out for them in the coming weeks, and they hope $29.5 million is a number taxpayers will support.
COST TO TAXPAYERS
According to statistics compiled by the MAUSD central office, the $29.5 million, 30-year bond would add an estimated $69.10 in property taxes per $100,000 of assessed value on a home in the school district. The tax impact would have been $97 per $100,000 of assessed value through a 20-year bond, according to Reen.
The $69.10 tax bump would be $18.50 less per $100,000 than this past November’s estimated bond impact of $87.60.  It’s a reduction of $84.29 per $100,000 compared to the 2014 bond impact.
Reen warned that not moving forward with a bond this year would raise the final price tag. An increase of 0.5 percent in the bond bank interest rate would add another $2 million over the life of the loan, he said.
“The architects and estimators we’ve been working with tell us construction costs typically increase at a rate of 4-5 percent each year,” Reen added. “Assuming a 5 percent increase each year, the 2014 bond of $32.6 million would be estimated at $37.7 million now. That’s an increase of $5.1 million in 3 years, or $1.7 million each year or $142,000 per month, or $4,700 per day.”
He also cited other potential impacts of renovations delays: A loss of student/teacher/community pride in their school, and the prospect of fewer people settling in the 5-town area due to concerns about the condition of the school. Fewer incoming families could mean a sharper decline in enrollment, thus boosting education taxes for current residents who could in turn see their property values decline.
Mount Abe board member Kevin Hanson was out of town for Wednesday’s meeting, but emailed his colleagues his thoughts about the $29.5 million renovation plan. He said school buildings within Mt. Abe school district are currently under-used, a product of declining enrollment that is expected to continue in this and other Vermont school districts. With that in mind, he doesn’t believe MAUSD should make a substantial capital investment.
“With the importance of understanding and getting space utilization and teacher/pupil ratios aligned, bonding commitments should be short-term, not more than five years,” he wrote.
“Widely accepted metrics place Mt. Abe behind all area high schools (Middlebury, Vergennes and Champlain Valley Union),” Hanson added. “The infusion of $29.5 million into the building is unlikely to move the needle much, and likely not at all to improve these standings.”
Still, all but one (Carol Eldridge) of the Mt. Abe board members at Wednesday’s gathering agreed to warn the $29.5 million project, citing in part the district’s role in providing sound public school facilities for local children.
Reen said his responsibility in that regard is spelled out in the district’s policy.
“Policy 2.6, Asset Protection, states the superintendent shall not allow district assets to be unprotected or inadequately maintained,” he told board members. “It also states the superintendent shall not endanger the organization’s public image, its credibility or its ability to accomplish ends. Not renovating Mt. Abraham could be seen as the superintendent being in violation of this policy.”
BOARD MEMBERS WEIGH IN
Board member Steve Rooney asked if the district could pitch multiple project funding choices to voters on March 6. He suggested the ballot include an article featuring a “base package” encompassing the most essential repairs, followed by one or more additional articles that could add other desired features to the project.
“My biggest fear is that the electorate decides to basically follow the path we’ve seen so far, and this reduction isn’t enough to sway enough people,” Rooney said.
Reen said state law precludes school districts from holding a multiple-choice approval process for bonded building projects.
Board member Brad Johnson said boosters must continue to stress to voters that the project “isn’t going to be more affordable in the future than it is now.”
Board member Allison Sturtevant warned against the temptation of building the project in installments through the years. She argued it would be more cost-effective and efficient to do all the work at once, while walls and ceilings are ripped out and plumbing is exposed.
“Redoing work that’s already been done is not a fiscally responsible way of doing things,” Sturtevant said.
Reen encouraged school directors to think about the future of Mount Abe beyond its current needs and within the context of a statewide public school system that is losing students and trying to reduce expenses.
“We are in pretty interesting times in the state of Vermont, in terms of what’s happening in education and declining enrollment statewide,” Reen said. “To assume this building will always be a (grades) 7-12 building is just that — an assumption. It could be lots of different things … I would challenge us to not only think of it as what it is now, but think about whether or not we wish to continue to have students here. And that’s what it boils down to for me. If we’re going to continue to have kids here — whether it’s more kids or less kids — we have a building we need to take care of.”
There’s already some outside-the-box thinking going on the 5-town area. A group of around 75 concerned citizens met at Bristol Elementary School on Jan. 6 to discuss ways of improving local schools (See related story by clicking here).
And Lincoln resident Steve Harris recently pitched the idea of reimagining the Mount Abe campus with a new one-story building that would serve as the primary space for academic education of students and a modestly repaired MAUHS building that he called “The Eagle Institute.” This building would operate as a business incubator, providing space for classrooms, nascent businesses, visiting lecturers and other community uses.
Meanwhile, MAUSD officials will do what they can to advance the $29.5 million renovation plan, and hope it gets majority support on Town Meeting Day.
“The million-dollar question is, ‘What is the amount of money that voters will pass?’” Reen said, “and nobody knows the answer to that.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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