Mount Abe bond faces crucial vote

BRISTOL — Residents of Mount Abe Unified School District will try for a third time to pass a bond vote to renovate the aging middle-and-high school facility on March 6, Town Meeting Day. This third vote is much like the previous two, with some significant compromises to reflect a 20 percent drop in proposed spending on the renovation.
The newly revised bond the school board approved on Jan. 10 is priced at $29.5 million and would be paid over 30 years. That’s $7.1 million less than the bond proposal narrowly defeated on Nov. 2, 2017. The first bond, at $32.2 million, was defeated on Town Meeting Day in 2014 by a 3-to-1 margin.
Superintendent Patrick Reen explains that the new asking price represents “the smallest amount we could bond for and still get the priorities (of the original renovation) addressed.”
Dore & Whittier, the architectural firm heading the design, submitted a memorandum to the school district detailing the ways in which priorities would still be met, but to a more modest degree. None of the eight priorities requested by the school district were eliminated from the project design, the architects said.
Of the 13 suggestions submitted by Dore & Whittier, the main concessions included:
•  Scaling back the complexity of the proposed second gym, saving $2 million;
•  Reducing the budget for aesthetic upgrades to the front of the building by $600,000;
•  Reconfiguring the bus loop road and access adjustments, saving $281,000;
•  Eliminating “exterior site improvements,” saving $475,000;
•  Eliminating $1 million in improvements to the theater and auditorium, including new lighting and sound systems, a retractable wall, retractable seating.
Time constraints prevented Dore & Whittier from providing updated drawings of the proposed renovation. Reen has emphasized, however, that “the concept is the same” and voters “don’t need to visualize structural changes to the November plan.”
The scaling-back of the project was a direct response to voters’ two biggest grievances as noted from surveys and outreach sessions after the vote: The project cost too much money and contained too many frills.
In survey testimonials available from the school district website, many say that the proposed November renovation focused on “wants” rather than “needs.” Survey respondents advocated for a renovation plan that brings the school out of its deplorable condition, but doesn’t result in a tax increase that many believe could be the “final straw” for a number of struggling residents.
Reen heard this loud and clear, saying, “No doubt affordability is the number one concern on people’s minds.” But he noted that the voters’ priorities for the school renovation have “remained the same” over the past four years.
Reen has justified the renovation costs to his board and district voters by emphasizing that expenses would continue to rise without further action, increasing at just more than a million dollars a year based on inflationary costs for school construction.
What voters do agree on, however, is that the school facility needs renovation. In the previously referenced survey circulated by the school district, 37 percent of more than 500 respondents rated the condition of the building as “poor.”
Poor building conditions can have a negative impact beyond being unsafe, according to Reen. “The environment in which we do our work matters,” he said. “Whether you’re a professional or a student, having pride in the place you do your work has an impact on the quality of the work you’re producing.”
Opponents of the bond come from two primary perspectives: one group whose interest is to see the cost of the renovation project reduced even more, and another group that is looking at new solutions that could possibly upgrade the facility and in the process help make it a magnet school.
The latter proposal, proposed by Lincoln resident Stephen Harris, who is a construction consultant for big projects throughout the Northeast, imagines building a new state-of-the-art 60,000-plus-square-foot classroom space adjoining the existing high school at the north end, while continuing to use the gym, library, cafeteria, auditorium and other large spaces in the existing building. The unused portion of the current building could then be leased out to a developer (in one scenario) who could develop incubator spaces for businesses and industry — perhaps in conjunction with job training experiences for students.
Both perspectives have prompted residents to consider a yearlong hiatus and community conversation if the bond goes down to defeat for a third time.

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