MAUSD invests big bucks in high school renovations

CONSTRUCTION WORKERS SPENT a good part of May and June demolishing the downstairs varsity locker rooms at Mount Abraham Union High School, in preparation for a complete renovation. Upstairs, similar work was happening in the junior varsity locker rooms.

It’s all about saving energy, saving money and making improvements.
— Joel FitzGerald

BRISTOL — With school buildings emptied out this spring because of the pandemic, Mount Abraham Unified School District officials have taken the opportunity to jump-start some long-planned renovations at their Bristol high school, and accomplish some emergency fixes.
Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School students will see a change as soon as they approach the front door.
Work will soon get underway on the building’s entrance, which will feature both improved security and accessibility, as well as provide a more welcoming environment, said MAUSD Facilities Director Joel FitzGerald during a visit by the Independent last month.
The front entrance is just one of several projects that are expected to be completed ahead of schedule.
“We had the opportunity with the budget and with the kids gone to get projects going early,” FitzGerald said. “We put the bids out, the numbers came in right, Gov. Scott (allowed small construction teams to resume work), so we went for it.”

One of the most dramatic scenes during last month’s tour of the building was unfolding in the downstairs locker rooms — or what remained of them, anyway.
Hundreds of square feet of wide-open space was punctuated by ladders, sawhorses, piles of sand and face-masked construction workers. Down the middle, where the wall separating the boys’ from the girls’ locker rooms used to be, new PVC drainpipes sprouted from a three-foot-deep trench.
By that time, Ed Poro from Rutland-based Russell Construction Services and his team had been there for about four weeks, FitzGerald said. They had removed the lockers, the walls, the granite showers — everything.
“Those lockers were not meant to be taken out,” Poro said, shaking his head, recalling the effort that went into their removal. The company’s first round of material disposal amounted to roughly 12,000 pounds, he added.
Upstairs, the junior varsity/middle school locker rooms, whose leaky plumbing in recent years has caused significant mold problems in the school, are getting a similar treatment — though without the piles of sand.
All four locker rooms are expected to be finished by September, but they may not see very much use at first, because of public health guidelines designed to keep students socially distanced and safe during the pandemic.
The projects are, however, expected to come in slightly under budget (which last fall was estimated to be about $1.9 million).

Which means the MAUSD has been able to launch another project: auditorium upgrades.
The house will get new carpeting and seating — out with the orange plastic, in with gray/blue cushioned seats — and many end rows that now face forward will be “refocused” to face center stage, said Mt. Abe Facilities Director Mike Orvis.
Backstage, two new wheelchair ramps will increase accessibility to the stage itself, and to the outside of the building. ADA automatic doors have also been installed at both the front-of-house and backstage entrances.
During the tour FitzGerald pointed out that the most important backstage wall, the one whose surface has been decorated over the years to include the names and dates of school musicals and plays, will be preserved.

This winter the ancient sludge stored up in Mt. Abe’s 10,000-gallon oil tank had begun to clog the backup heating system so often that Orvis was constantly calling for repairs — which was costing the district thousands of dollars.
It didn’t help that the burners had parts that were now too old to replace.
Finally, after a major system shutdown in mid-January, when facilities staff found themselves hand-feeding the school’s wood-chip generator in order to keep the primary heating system going, the district fast-tracked a replacement tank and replacement burners.
The new system, unlike the old, features individually fed burners that can be isolated in case of a system breakdown or blockage. They’re also quite a bit more efficient — 70% vs. 40% — which should significantly cut down on fuel use.
And the new tank, at 5,000 gallons, is just half the size of the old one.

Down in the bowels of the building, a new filtration pump (another emergency fix) is humming along happily.
The space that houses the pool’s circulation system is now so clean and dry that it would make the perfect spot to over-winter a sports car, FitzGerald pointed out with a grin.
Thanks to a $10,000 safety grant, the outdoor entrance to the filtration room is now enclosed in a new pool building, and the steep stairs leading underground have been fitted with a sturdy safety railing.
The building has a removable roof, as well, which may come in handy if large pieces of equipment (though nothing like a vintage Mustang) need to go in or out.

Despite the district’s best efforts to salvage it last summer, the air-handling unit in the wrestling room broke down and leaked water all over the place, which ruined the wrestling mat.
Insurance covered the replacement, to the tune of $12,000, but before installing the new mat, FitzGerald and his team looked around at the renovations happening in adjoining locker rooms, then gazed down at the wrestling room’s old asbestos-tile flooring.
“And we thought, ‘we can’t put this new mat down on a (crummy) old floor.”
So out came the asbestos tiles. The new flooring, which should be completed before students arrive in the fall, will provide a nice continuity between the newly renovated locker rooms, FitzGerald said.

The school district is tackling these projects in waves, FitzGerald explained. And they’re being pursued in a way that will not interfere with the Expanded Learning Program (ELP)’s summer session, a health-cautious and scaled-down version of which is taking place in the middle school wing every day.
On top of all of this work, MAUSD facilities staff has seen to it that Mt. Abe’s kitchen, where food for the Meals on the Bus program was prepared this spring; and Bristol Elementary, which housed the Essential Persons Childcare Program; and spaces occupied by Summer ELP are clean and safe at all times.
As if this weren’t enough, FitzGerald soon plans to re-acquire his plumber’s license, and the district recently hired a licensed electrician — the first tradesperson they’ve ever had on staff.
“It’s all about saving energy, saving money and making improvements,” FitzGerald said.
All the while, the facilities staff are thinking of the students.
Like other school districts around the country, MAUSD faces many challenges related to the ongoing pandemic. But FitzGerald and his team, along with MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen and other district officials, hope that these months of hard and heavy work will produce a singular effect among returning Mt. Abe students, an effect that can be expressed by one simple word:
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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