Top 10 stories from 2018: Mt. Abe bond fails for third time

Despite the best efforts of Bristol-area school district officials, who were hoping the third time would be the charm, a $29.5 million bond for the renovation of Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School went down in flames on Town Meeting Day, 1,785–1,196.
In 2014, voters overwhelmingly rejected the first bond proposal of $32 million by a margin of nearly 3 to 1.
Three years later a second, pricier version, at $36.5 million, nearly won approval, in spite of lower turnout and reduced support overall.
If school district officials were hoping margins of defeat were trending in their favor, they were disappointed in 2018. While support for the bond remained static (‘yes’ votes stayed within a range of 71 tallies over three years), opposition showed up at the polls in decisive numbers.
The revised bond, which the school board had approved on Jan. 10, was $7.1 million less than the previous proposal and represented “the smallest amount we could bond for and still get the priorities (of the original renovation) addressed,” said Superintendent Patrick Reen.
Dore & Whittier, the architectural firm heading the design, submitted a memorandum to the Mount Abraham Unified School District detailing the ways in which priorities would still be met, but to a more modest degree.
The 13 suggestions 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.
Reducing the project’s scale was a direct response to voters’ two biggest grievances as noted from surveys and outreach sessions: The project cost too much money and contained too many frills.
Voters were also concerned about the rise in the cost of education per pupil in the 5-Town district. Over 15 years, the student population at Mount Abe has dropped 33 percent, from almost 1,000 students to 639 in 2017–18.
The 2018 bond’s defeat left district officials without a roadmap for accomplishing critical improvements to the 50-year-old school. Though for the second year running voters approved an overall school district budget that sets aside $1 million for Mount Abe repairs and renovations, Superintendent Reen pointed out that achieving necessary improvements was not something the district would be able to “tweak” its way toward.
Some interpreted the third bond proposal’s defeat not as a “no” to the students of Mount Abe so much as a “yes” to a better approach in the future, but over the last nine months no clear picture of what that might mean has emerged. The district would be willing, to a limited extent, to consider “out-of-the-box” scenarios, Reen said, but “the assumption is that there will be some interest in pursuing another bond.”
Chief among citizen groups exploring alternatives to renovation bonds was the 5-Town Community Forum (5TCF), which held a number of meetings throughout the year to increase community engagement and gather ideas.
By year’s end, with strong encouragement from the 5TCF, the school district had hired a consultant to conduct assessments of Mount Abe’s indoor air quality, an issue that has for many years caused great concern among students, parents and school officials alike.
School safety, accessibility and energy efficiency top the list of immediate projects the district plans to tackle in the school.

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