New Mt. Abe facilities chief ramps up rehab

BRISTOL — When Joel FitzGerald accepted the job as facilities director of the Mount Abraham Unified School District, he knew what he was getting into. His brother has lived in the 5-Towns for more than 35 years and the second generation of FitzGeralds is about to enter its school district. In addition to making sure students are safe, warm and undistracted by their environment every day, FitzGerald would have to manage a rapidly deteriorating high school in a district where voters have three times rejected bonds to renovate it.
Six weeks in, with a number of accomplishments already under his belt, FitzGerald is excited about the opportunities he sees for improvement.
“You know when you look at a plane when it leaves the aircraft carrier, it drops a little bit, then it goes up — that’s the vision I see every day, and I believe we’re on the way up,” he said, adding that the image was inspired by his father, who served in the Air Force.
On his first day, Nov. 1, FitzGerald walked in and said, “Let me hear all the complaints,” then went to bat for his staff of 19, which needed better equipment and communication policies. As a result of these immediate improvements, “we’re bigger, faster and stronger,” he said.
Even as he settled in last month, a conversation about conditions at Mount Abraham Union High School bloomed on Bristol’s Front Porch Forum. Andree Carlson and Sally Jenks Roth, who both voted in favor of latest renovation bond, wrote about recent experiences in the building.
“I know this school well and it has deteriorated to such a low level I am now uncomfortable with my granddaughters being in this environment,” Carlson wrote.
“I could understand some people choking at (the renovation bond’s $29.5 million price tag), especially if they don’t and didn’t have kids at the school,” added Roth. “However, in being shown around the school and the shocking conditions, I was alarmed.”
Taking these and other known issues into account, FitzGerald and his bosses, Superintendent Patrick Reen and Chief Financial Officer Howard Mansfield, are pursuing a number of priorities for the district.
“You can’t learn if you don’t feel safe,” FitzGerald said, citing school security as the district’s number-one priority. 
This autumn district employees completed A.L.I.C.E. (alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate) training, but in some respects, FitzGerald said, “We’re frantically catching up.”
Needed improvements are forthcoming — cameras, door locks, an upgrade to Mt. Abe’s public address system — but they won’t always be “sexy” (to use a concept FitzGerald learned while managing UVM’s athletic facilities for three years).
“The public is expecting some sexy stuff — fresh paint, new carpet, new flooring, new furniture. But when it comes to school safety, you kind of get away from the sexy stuff.”
District wish lists in this area include additional security cameras, card-reader access to the schools and big-ticket reception-area improvements, especially at Mt. Abe, where people can enter and exit the front entrance unchecked by front office staff.
Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act ranks second among the district’s priorities, FitzGerald said. Up for improvement are the pool at Mt. Abe, where one stairwell lacks a handrail, and a number of bathrooms, where evolving conversations around gender — both socially and legally — will need to be taken into consideration.
On July 1 this year a state law went into effect requiring all single-user restrooms in public facilities to be designated gender-neutral.
MAUSD is currently accepting bids on a district-wide energy audit and will partner with Efficiency Vermont on the project.
“We’ve been working with the energy committee of (a local community group) on this,” FitzGerald said. “They’re supporters of the district and they bring a lot to the table, and as far as I’m concerned, the more voices in the room the better.”
There is no established timeline for the project, he said, adding that bids so far have ranged between $120,000 and $300,000.
In another project facilitated by 5-Town Community Forum, New Hampshire-based H. L. Turner Group will soon begin conducting an initial audit of indoor air quality (IAQ) at each of the district schools, which also include elementary schools in Starksboro, New Haven, Monkton, Lincoln and Bristol.
“It will tell us what we have,” FitzGerald said. “We think we’re good, but it’s always good to have other eyes on the issue. We know the systems are aging and there is the potential for upgrades and improvements.”
MAUSD has recently stepped up preventive maintenance, he added, including duct- and vent-cleaning.
Once the audit gets under way, students will be an integral part of the project, he said.
“They will help collect the data, to some degree, but the big part with be introducing the data tothem. And they will be involved in roundtable discussions.”
“The information will be exceptionally helpful in charting paths forward,” said ]David Brynn of the 5-Town Community Forum. “This was the goal of our nine-person Mt. Abe HVAC-IAQ Citizens’ Group and we have helped to achieve that. We plan to stay involved.”
“We’re a sports-based community,” FitzGerald said. “Why drive 20 minutes to some other town’s sports facilities when we can enhance our own?”
To that end, the Mt. Abe gym, which was recently outfitted with new wall mats, will get new bleachers this summer. These are a matter not only of safety — the old ones had holes in them — but of aesthetics and pride.
“Imagine when those new bleachers show up on Channel 3 because our teams have made the playoffs,” he said with a smile.
FitzGerald would also like to see the products of Mt. Abe’s composting facilities be used to fertilize the school’s athletic fields and plans to undertake that project in the summer.
MAUSD is also accepting bids on a new pool filtration system for Mt. Abe, which will likely cost $60,000 to $80,000.
“The swimming pool has had no upgrades since it was installed,” FitzGerald pointed out. “This will increase efficiency and improve the quality of the product we’re giving to the community.”
“I really like (Superintendent Reen’s) vision,” FitzGerald said. “‘We’ve tried things for 30 years and it’s not working. Why are we still trying to do the same things?’ That’s one of the reasons I wanted this job.”
Still, FitzGerald knows it won’t be easy.
“I was joking with a friend a while back that I was leaning toward (moving to) Florida,” he recalled. 
Why take the job, then? 
“I like to think of it this way: Every prize-fighter thinks they have one last fight in them. In that way, maybe I’m a little bit like Muhammad Ali or George Foreman,” he said with a laugh.
On a serious note, he added, “I think sometimes it’s really easy — and I do this myself at home in Burlington, where my taxes are really high — to sit at the dinner table and say ‘my gosh,’ you know, ‘what are they doing with our money?’ But everybody’s working really hard here for our students.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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