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Middlebury area considers $17M in school fixes

MORE THAN 150 Middlebury-area residents turned out at their local high school on Monday to learn about the repair needs for the Addison Central School District’s seven elementary schools. An architect revealed the buildings need a combined $17.4 million in fixes just to take care of deferred maintenance issues.

The real purpose here is to be thoughtful and proactive, and not be in a position where we are reacting to crisis and having to make decisions that aren’t thoughtful. And we want to take time and community input.
— ACSD board Chairman Peter Conlon

MIDDLEBURY — A commissioned architect on Monday gave Addison Central School District officials a lot of food for thought as they decide how to deploy taxpayers’ limited resources in tackling aging school buildings serving an ever-decreasing number of students.
The estimated price tag for catching up on four decades of deferred maintenance to the ACSD’s seven elementary schools — which essentially involved bringing them up to building, handicap-access and safety codes — is $17.4 million.
Moreover, the two architects from TruexCullins told district officials — and a crowd of more than 150 people assembled at the Middlebury Union High School auditorium — that only one of the seven schools (Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary) meets the ACSD Facilities Commission’s vision of the kind of facility it will ideally take to educate current and future generations of local children.
Monday’s meeting was the grand unveiling of a TruexCullins inspection of the ACSD elementary schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. It comes at a time when the ACSD board is looking to prioritize future capital investments as enrollment declines. The ACSD has lost 100 students during the past two years, and Superintendent Peter Burrows expects that to continue until at least 2026. The ACSD is working on a facilities master plan that will, among other things, recommend investments in specific schools and perhaps the closure of others. The prospect of school closures and/or mergers has raised concern among folks in some communities — including Ripton and Weybridge, which have the smallest student populations.
“We knew hard decisions were coming; we could see what was going on — the budget increases, the declining population,” ACSD board Chairman Peter Conlon told the crowd. “The real purpose here is to be thoughtful and proactive, and not be in a position where we are reacting to crisis and having to make decisions that aren’t thoughtful. And we want to take time and community input.”
TruexCullins Architect David Epstein led Monday’s presentation, which included graphics and statistics shown on a big screen. The company’s deferred maintenance cost estimates for each school include construction materials, labor and soft costs. They don’t include permitting, insulation upgrades, hazardous material mitigation, and any renovations or additions that might be sought to expand a particular school in a consolidation scenario.
Here’s an overview of each school building’s major deficiencies and the estimates for correcting them:
•  Bridport Central: Damaged site culverts and drains, damaged bricks and mortar, inefficient thermal envelope, exposed asbestos, insufficient fire protection and limited ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) access. Cost: $2,272,363.
•  Bingham Memorial School (Cornwall): Inefficient thermal envelope, exposed asbestos, insufficient fire protection and limited ADA access, damaged bricks and mortar joints, electrical deficiencies. Cost: $2,012,514.
•  Mary Hogan (Middlebury): Damaged siding, inefficient thermal envelope, insufficient fire protection, limited ADA access, insufficient emergency lighting, poor air circulation. Cost: $7,064,286.
•  Ripton Elementary: Insufficient windows, damaged/worn finishes, insufficient fire protection, limited ADA access, insufficient emergency lighting, poor air circulation. Cost: $1,115,794.
•  Salisbury Community School: Lack of sidewalks, uneven lighting levels, missing fire alarm devices, failing door hardware, limited ADA access. Cost: $1,584,209.
•  Shoreham Elementary: Roof structural integrity, limited ADA accessibility, poor air circulation, inadequate light levels, inefficient windows, insufficient insulation, inadequate parking, floor/slab failure. Cost: $1,813,871.
•  Weybridge Elementary: Unstable retaining walls, roof failure at entry façade, exposed asbestos floor, inadequate fire detection and alarm coverage, inefficient windows. Cost: $1,546,724.

SQUARE FOOTAGE
Repairs aside, TruexCullins officials also offered current square-footage totals for each school building and compared them to what they called a “model program” developed in concert with the ACSD Facilities Committee. The “model program,” they explained, was their template of the square footage and facilities ideally suited to delivering exceptional education within a building providing one classroom for each grade.
In the case of the ACSD, that means pre-K, kindergarten and grades 1-5, as plans call for the district’s sixth-graders to be served at Middlebury Union Middle School beginning next fall.
The “model program” imagines a school of 30,173 gross square feet, with classrooms of 820 square feet for each of grades 1-5. Classrooms of 1,050 and 950 square feet, respectively, are assigned to kindergarten and pre-K. The model also recommends a 1,450-square-foot library, 4,644-square-foot multi-purpose room (that can double as a cafeteria and gym), as well as administrative offices, music and art rooms (each 1,100 square feet), and other spots for nursing, guidance and storage.
TruexCullins’ analysis indicated only Mary Hogan Elementary meets — and in many areas exceeds — the model program template. The other six rural schools fail to measure up in several categories, according to Epstein.
For example, in the case of Weybridge Elementary, shortcomings include the current lack of classrooms for grades four, five and pre-K, and no art and music spaces.
In Shoreham, it’s a lack of art and music spaces, and a multi-purpose room that’s about half the recommended 4,455 square feet.
Salisbury’s classrooms (except grade 2) comfortably exceed space recommendations, but fall short on music and foreign languages, and there’s no pre-K.
Ripton has one of the newest school buildings in the district, but currently has no designated classrooms for pre-K and grades 4 and 5, as well as no art and music rooms and a multipurpose room of only 1,765 square feet.
Cornwall’s Bingham School currently has no pre-K or grade 4 classrooms, no art or music rooms, and a multipurpose room half the recommended 4,644 square feet.
And Bridport currently has no classrooms for grades 4 and 5, no music and art space, no lobby and a 2,028-square-foot multi-purpose room.
School officials will refer to the TruexCullins report as they ready the facilities master plan during the coming months.  And the ACSD board wants to sort out its capital priorities soon, in order to get education expenses under control.

EXCESS SPENDING PENALTY
ACSD Business Manager Brittany Gilman indicated that if left unchecked, current enrollment and spending trends could lead to the district’s 2021-2022 budget exceeding the state’s excess spending threshold by $790,000. There’s a double-tax for every dollar a district spends above that spending threshold.
The resulting financial penalty would produce a 16-cent increase in the district-wide education property tax rate in fiscal year 2022, translating to a $478 increase for a taxpayer with a home assessed at $300,000, according to Gilman. In other terms, this would mean a $127 increase for a person paying property taxes on an $80,000 household income.
In order to stay under the excess spending threshold, the district would likely have to annually cut 13-16 full-time equivalent positions during fiscal years 2022 to 2026, as around 75 percent of the annual ACSD budget is tied to wages and benefits according to Gilman.
“Once you exceed the excess spending threshold, it’s hard to get back behind it,” Gilman cautioned.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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