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SVUUSD voters nix capital plan and budget

ORWELL — Orwell residents on Tuesday joined other Slate Valley Unified Union School District (SVUUSD) voters in soundly defeating a proposed $59.5 million bond issue that would have, among other things, bankrolled an 8,200-square-foot addition to the Orwell school.
The proposal — which would have also resulted in extensive renovations to Fair Haven Union High School, a new “Slate Valley Middle School” and a new, $842,066 elevator system at Fair Haven Grade School — was defeated by 2,489-719 margin by the collective voters of Orwell, Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Fair Haven.
District voters also rejected a proposed fiscal year 2021 spending plan of $26,623,041 for SVUUSD schools, by a closer 1,585 to 1,490 tally.
Slate Valley officials will now go back to the drawing board to determine what level of financial support district voters might be willing to allocate for operation and upgrades to the school system.
“Of course I am disappointed in outcome of both the bond and budget articles, but especially the budget,” SVUUSD Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said late Tuesday evening. “We really presented a lean budget and I’m not sure what can be cut from it as it was a very small percentage increase in expenditures.  I believe it was one of the lowest increases in the area.”
The budget reflected a 3.5% increase in equalized per-pupil spending compared to this year.
Olsen-Farrell said she understands the $59.5 million bond “was a big number” for local taxpayers.
“I know the board will re-examine the project and likely come back to voters soon with a modified plan,” she said. “Doing nothing is not an option. We have infrastructure needs that must be addressed.”
Around $6 million of the proposed $59.5 million bond was earmarked to renovate and expand the Orwell school. Around $1 million was to be spent on Orwell school repairs, with the remainder budgeted for an addition that would have included a new cafeteria and gym.
Orwell’s approximately 140 students in grades K-8 currently eat and exercise at the adjacent 179-year-old town hall building at 494 Main St. While structurally sound, the town hall’s deficiencies include a subpar heating system, antiquated electrical wiring, and insufficient access for people with disabilities.
The townspeople deeded the Orwell Town Hall building to the school back in 1961 and the building has been used for daily school purposes (cafeteria and gym) and town purposes since then. The building’s ownership transferred to the SVUUSD in November 2018, when Orwell was forced to merge with that district after rejecting such a merger three times in public votes.
One of the construction scenarios still in play calls for the Orwell Town Hall to be razed and replaced with parking. Slate Valley and Orwell leaders are reviewing an ancient Orwell Town Hall deed to see if there are any covenants that might restrict the disposition of the building should it no longer be used for educational purposes.
Meanwhile, a group of Orwell residents has rallied to protect the building. They have been circulating an advisory “Preserve Town Hall Petition,” urging town leaders to resist efforts to demolish the building.
One of the petitioners is resident Timothy Short. He said the fate of the town hall came up under “other business” at Tuesday’s annual town meeting, at which the selectboard announced a special gathering would be called to discuss the Town Hall’s future.
“I believe that when it is all said and done, the selectboard, the SVUUSD board and the citizens of Orwell will come together with a proposal that will invest in our existing historic Town Hall without insulting taxpayers,” Short said. “I also believe that this will give us a town Hall, school gym/cafeteria and events center that will make us all proud and serve the community for generations to come. In the mean time, I would encourage interested Orwellians to sign the “preserve the town hall petition” that is posted at Buxton’s Store, Country Ag and Gas-n-Go store. I believe we are already close to 200 signatures.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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