Woodstock school officials plan for another vote on school building proposal

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-19-2024 5:34 PM

WOODSTOCK — The Mountain Views Supervisory Union hopes to put another school building bond proposal before voters within the next few months, following the defeat of a $99 million request on Town Meeting Day.

The original bond was for the construction of a new Woodstock middle and high school to replace the current school building, which is aging and experiencing failures in its structural integrity, according to school officials.

The board could put the exact same proposal before voters, or it could modify the plans to reduce the overall project cost. That decision is “uncertain at this point,” Keri Bristow, the board’s chairwoman, said Monday. The board will consult again with Lavallee Brensinger Architects to look at what sorts of trade-offs different design modifications would require.

In the meantime, district leadership is taking a look at what its options might be if the current school building fails in a catastrophic way.

“We’re trying to come up with plans A, B, C and even D,” Director of Finance and Operations Jim Fenn said in an interview.

His office is looking into how many separate classroom spaces could be created in the hockey arena, and what other spaces in town might be available.

A portable classroom with two rooms would cost approximately $100,000 per year, according to Fenn. The current building has 48 rooms, which means that the cost of temporary classrooms could potentially exceed $4 million in the absence of other viable options.

Paying tuition to send several hundred district students to other schools would cost approximately $8 million per year, plus transportation and special education costs, Fenn said. But it’s not clear whether neighboring schools could accommodate all of those students.

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“We haven’t even started those conversations,” Fenn said.

In the meantime, school staff are working hard to anticipate problems.

“My job is to keep the place warm and safe and the doors open, and I will continue to do that,” Building and Grounds Director Joe Rigoli said last week. “It will get progressively more difficult and more expensive as time goes on.”

Last year, during a stretch of subzero nighttime temperatures, HVAC expert and building and grounds staff member Stu Hawes slept in the Woodstock building for three nights to make sure that none of the pipes froze or burst, according to Rigoli.

“We’re at the end of our rope here,” he said.

The district had budgeted $200,000 for anticipated repairs above and beyond routine maintenance, Mountain Views Superintendent Sherry Souza said.

In the cafeteria’s kitchen area, staff sometimes have to work in standing water when drainage problems occur, which happens “every 90 days or so,” School Nutrition Director Gretchen Czaja said in an interview.

Her staff does the best they can with what they have, but temporary repairs that don’t address more fundamental structural problems are like “putting lipstick on a pig,” she said.

“We make it work, but it’s a ticking time bomb,” Czaja said.

The bond needs a simple majority of combined votes from the seven member towns within the supervisory union to pass. It failed by a margin of 55% to 45%, with 3,480 votes cast.

The School Board recently distributed a survey to parents and community members asking how they voted and why. As of Monday, about 1,200 responses had been received, Bristow said.

The surveys seem to point to sticker shock as a reason for the project’s defeat.

“For those who voted no, the greatest concern was the cost and its impact on property taxes,” Souza said.

The district will continue to try to make its case for a new building palatable to voters, and Souza wants those who voted no on the bond to know that she’s listening.

“Our message is that we hear that we are close to having a majority vote for the project, and we want those who are not yet there to know that we value their concerns.”

The district also will continue to seek private donations to offset the expense of a new building, Souza said. $3.4 million has been raised so far.

In addition to seeking support for a new building bond, Souza said that the district will continue to pressure the state Legislature to put school construction funding back on the table in Montpelier.

Because Vermont suspended its school construction aid program in 2007, districts throughout the state are facing a looming infrastructure crisis caused by more than two decades of deferred maintenance.

“This is an education crisis. It’s a building crisis. And it’s particularly bad in Vermont,” Bristow said.

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727-3208.