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Slate Valley district asking $59.5M for school upgrades

There are classrooms (in Orwell) that have to be taught with the windows open in winter to maintain any semblance of appropriate atmosphere for students. The infrastructure is not optional.
— SVUUSD board chair Julie Finnegan

ORWELL — Residents in Orwell and the other five towns in the Slate Valley Unified Union School District (SVUUSD) will vote on a $59.5 million bond referendum on March 3. The money would pay for a new, 8,200-square-foot addition for the Orwell Village School, as well as construction of a new district middle school and major upgrades to Fair Haven Union High School.
The proposal is the culmination of almost two years of research by an SVUUSD committee charged with researching ways to expand educational opportunities for students and pitch ways to address the costs of deferred maintenance to district buildings. The panel recommended a plan — which has earned the unanimous support of the SVUUSD board — that calls for:
•  Renovating FHUHS.
•  Building a new “Slate Valley Middle School” adjacent to FHUHS.
•  Installing a new, $842,066 elevator at Fair Haven Grade School.
•  Renovating the Orwell Village School and equipping it with an addition that would accommodate a cafeteria and gym, amenities currently provided at the adjacent, 179-year-old Orwell Town Hall building at 494 Main St., which is in disrepair. While some Orwell residents have endorsed a proposal to demolish the town hall for extra parking, other residents are lobbying for its retention and preservation (see related story).
The cost of the Orwell school addition has been placed at $6,068,312, with an additional $355,829 to remove the town hall building, should district and local officials choose that course.
The SVUUSD serves children in Orwell, Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven. Orwell merged with the district last year following a district-wide vote. Orwell residents had previously voted multiple times against joining the SVUUSD.
Julie Finnegan chairs the SVUUSD board, and stressed the need for the overall project. She said the Orwell school and FHUHS are contending with some of the worst conditions, stemming from antiquated heating systems.
“This is about creating a safe and healthy environment for learning at the high school, which we are bordering on not being able to provide,” she said. “The heating system is out of whack. It’s a 1957 boiler. I have a son who attends the high school and he wears layers every day. He could be in a 100-degree classroom or a 70-degree classroom.”
In Orwell, she said, “There are classrooms that have to be taught with the windows open in winter to maintain any semblance of appropriate atmosphere for students. The infrastructure is not optional. We have to do something, or there’s the potential we could be shut down because it’s not functioning correctly. What teacher wants to teach in a classroom that’s 100 degrees every day? It’s not conducive to teaching or learning.”
Head online to tinyurl.com/uylu6ly for more project details.
Here are some the highlights:
•  The FHUHS work would provide for, among other things, upgraded science rooms; a cognitive impairment classroom; maker and engineering spaces for student projects to support the implementation of a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math Program; student gathering/social spaces; small exhibition/performance spaces for student presentations; upgraded locker and team rooms; turf field; additional playing field space; and more parking.
The project would also correct deficiencies in heating, plumbing, electrical and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance.
•  The new middle school would feature, among other things, a multi-purpose “resource center” for student presentations, dining opportunities and other large-scale activities; eight total classrooms; four maker spaces, including work kitchens, washer/dryer, and space for 3-D printers, music recording, video recording, engineering, woodworking, metalworking and robotics; a music room; band/choral facilities; a gym; and office/conference space for educators and staff.

TAX IMPACT
If approved, the 30-year, $59.5 million bond would take its biggest toll on SVUUSD taxpayers during fiscal year 2024. It would have the effect of adding $265 to the property tax bill of someone with a $100,000 home, or result in an additional $50 levy on a household income of $50,000, officials estimated.
SVUUSD officials contend the project work is long overdue.
“Our current facilities, in varying degrees, have serious problems that need immediate attention related to aging infrastructure; ADA and other compliance issues; student safety, security, and quality of life; and deferred maintenance,” reads a district statement about the project on slatevalleyunified.org. “In addition, any goal to control long-term increases in district spending would benefit from steps aimed at making our schools more energy efficient and operationally cost-effective.”
Peter Stone is an Orwell delegate to the SVUUSD board.
“It’s a much-needed bond for much-needed infrastructure work,” he said during a Wednesday phone interview. “I realize it’s a large bond, but we’re at the point where that’s where we’re at. We can sit here and point fingers at who did what, but that won’t do any good right now.”
He said the district’s school buildings are deteriorating due to lack of investment, and that the situation will only get worse if the proverbial can is kicked down the road.
“I understand some people don’t want the middle school, some people think it’s too much money and some people have other reasons (for not supporting the bond),” he said. “But at some point we have to come together for our school system to move forward.”
Stone urged fellow townspeople to take a long-term view of the project.
“This is an investment in our towns… and our whole school district,” he said “It’s for the future of kids in our schools and kids who will be coming into our district.”
SVUUSD Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said the project would “conservatively” save the district $1 million in personnel costs. Having a single middle school would require fewer teachers than must currently serve that age group at individual schools (such as Orwell, which hosts grades K-8), she noted.
It should also be noted the proposed project would result in closure of Castleton Village School. Castleton University wants to lease the building, which would relieve the SVUUSD from having to repair it.

DEMOGRAPHIC SHIFTS
Olsen-Farrell said the district has during the past two budget cycles cut a combined total of 15 full-time equivalent positions, largely through attrition. This has been driven by declining enrollment and more diligent sharing of resources among schools in wake of governance consolidation through Vermont’s Act 46.
“We hear from taxpayers all the time, ‘You have declining enrollment, so your personnel should be declining,’” Olsen-Farrell said. “We’ve done that to the extent we can in our current configuration. There comes a point when you can’t do any more without severely impacting the educational programming in the schools.”
She added schools must change in order to meet demographic shifts and educational expectations.
“We’re functioning very inefficiently in our current system,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t have the capacity to provide all the educational programming we’d like all the kids to have, particularly in the middle school.”
Finnegan said she understands the sticker shock some taxpayers will feel when considering the $59.5 million request. But she believes the district can’t afford to defer the work to future years. School boards throughout the state have postponed building upgrades and repairs in order to keep property tax increases lower. Postponing such work is now coming home to roost, she said.
“We didn’t do what we needed to do, to the detriment of infrastructure,” she said.
Vermont used to cover 30 percent of the costs of public school construction projects, but suspended that program more than a decade ago. The House Education Committee has been exploring the possibility of restoring school construction aid, and Finnegan was among those set to testify on the subject at the Statehouse this week.
An ad-hoc group convened by the Vermont Superintendents Association surveyed school districts and gathered information from the Vermont Bond Bank this past summer to get a statewide picture of planned school construction projects, according to a recent report in VTDigger. That report, according to VTDigger, found that a combined $565 million in school construction projects will be rolled out during the next few years.
“What has pretty much happened around this state is that school boards needed to present low budgets to their communities, and in doing that, they have created this infrastructure nightmare that we all need to get out of,” Finnegan said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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