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Orwell town hall project on hold

ORWELL — Orwell residents this March won’t be voting on a school building project after all. A recent state mandate that Orwell join the Slate Valley Modified Unified Union School District (SVMUUSD) means town officials need to table plans to expand their local elementary school in order to accommodate a cafeteria and gym.
Orwell school officials had hoped to present voters with a proposal to put an addition onto the upper wing of the west side of the school. It also called for razing the neighboring Orwell Town Hall, a deteriorating 179-year-old structure that currently serves as the students’ cafeteria and gym.
Orwell school directors were hoping to limit the project cost to around $2 million, believing a higher figure would be too much for local taxpayers to foot through a bond. Local officials were planning under the assumption that Orwell would continue to operate an independent PreK-8th grade school, and thus pay the costs itself.
That notion changed after this past November’s General Election, when Orwell residents and those in the SVMUUSD voted by a combined 2,216 to 1,615 to require Orwell to join Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven in the Slate Valley district. The SVMUUSD governs all public schools (including Fair Haven Union High School) in the district.
Orwell voters on three previous occasions had rejected their community’s entry into the SVMUUSD. But since the most recent vote co-mingled ballots from all six towns, Orwell’s fate was decided by the collective electorate of all of the communities.
So Orwell will need to delay its school building bond vote while the town’s entry into SVMUUSD is being sorted out.
And that delay could end up saving Orwell taxpayers some money, as the costs of the project would be shared by other SVMUUSD taxpayers, according to district Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell. It remains unclear whether Orwell’s forced merger will be challenged in court by opponents of Act 46, the state’s school governance consolidation law that triggered the referendum.
“Since we are under the impression that Orwell is merging, Orwell Town School District wouldn’t have the authority to bring forth a bond by themselves,” Olsen-Farrell said through an email. “Slate Valley is looking at a bond to address issues across the district and the Orwell project would be incorporated into that.”
Slate Valley officials are targeting this September for a district-wide facilities bond vote, according to Olsen-Farrell.
Litigation or other merger delays that could further upset Orwell’s proposed building project, she added.
“If Orwell doesn’t merge on July 1 of 2019 and instead merges in 2020, it could delay everything, or Slate Valley would move forward without the Orwell project,” she said. “We really aren’t sure at this juncture. The Orwell project is a definite need, just not sure how it will all ultimately play out. The best scenario is for the merger to move forward on July 1 of 2019. Otherwise (it) will be undoing all of the work we have already done just to redo it a year later. This ultimately does nothing to benefit students.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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