“There’s new legal information that’s just come out in the last few weeks,” Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) Brigid Scheffert Nease told the Act 46 study committee last Wednesday, March 23.
A provision was added to bill H.853 (section 7) that allows the study committee to limit the amount of bonded indebtedness that the newly consolidated board would take on. The Act 46 study committee voted to limit bonded debt from a series of repairs that will take place at Warren Elementary School next year to $2.55 million.
The Warren board believes that the school needs up to $5 million in repairs. In early March, Burlington-based architectural firm TruexCullins presented a range of costs from $1.8 million to $4.7 million to the board, although some costs have been added by TruexCullins in the following weeks.
Shortly after, the building committee reorganized repair items from the quote to correspond with reports from Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust (VSBIT), who recommended a list of repairs to the board in 2009. The committee created two categories of items, each totaling $3.6 million and $1.4 million, or about $5 million total. The board may present both options to voters.
“The way that the architects broke things out doesn’t really line up in any meaningful way with what we need to fix from the state’s perspective,” said Warren School Board member Jen Watkins.
Warren board chair Matt “Chicky” Staples said that the first category of repairs for $3.6 million deals with urgent items, such as roofs, flooring, plumbing and electrical systems.
“It’s not chandeliers. It’s boilers and rotten siding and asbestos tiling,” Watkins said.
The second category totaling $1.4 million includes an addition to the front of the building, due to “an inferior security aspect,” Staples said. “This is a large investment in the town of Warren and our school, but nothing has happened to that building of this sort since its inception.”
RUNNING UP THE BILL
Scheffert Nease said, “What’s at debate for everybody is what this word ‘necessary’ means.” Many items conceived of as necessary by the Warren board are “certainly not tied to some kind of a ‘must have,’” she said. These include the creation of a new conference and faculty room that would come with the front addition, she said. “It feels like building a new school.”
Study committee vice chair and Waitsfield board member Christine Sullivan said that the Warren board’s $5 million list of repairs is “running up the bill on someone else’s checkbook.”
She added that while TruexCullins urged the Warren board that they “might as well” spend several more million on a project that is already pricey, it has turned into a figure that is too large.
AN ELEGANT SOLUTION
Study committee chair and Moretown board member Gabe Gilman said that the conversation about repairs is difficult because “the study committee can’t micromanage what’s necessary. It’s not within our grasp to do that.”
He called the article that would limit the bonded indebtedness from Warren Elementary School’s repairs an “elegant solution.”
Gilman said that once WWSU districts are consolidated – which could occur in July 2017 with an accelerated version of the merger or in July 2019 as the state’s overall deadline to merge public districts – the Warren School Board would still exist for the sake of paying off the portion of debt not absorbed by the unified board.
WWSU director of finances Michelle Baker said that the same scenario unfolded for Duxbury in past years. When Waterbury and Duxbury boards merged, the Duxbury “ghost board” stayed in existence to deal with their debts.
Watkins called the figure of $2.55 million a “really bad number.” She asked the committee to consider an amount of $3.5 million, as opposed to $5 million. “It’s not a number that brings our cost of operation above anyone else’s,” she said. “We’re not asking for more than our share.”
Gilman said that the amount of $2.55 million does not represent the maximum amount that could ever be spent on repairs for Warren Elementary School. “It represents the maximum liability that voters in the other districts would take on,” he said. Warren could request a second bond in years following the consolidation and the unified board may allow it. But would they?
Sullivan said that Warren Elementary School should begin devising a capital improvement plan instead of taking a second bond in the future. This would keep costs down, she said, by saving on interest charges for borrowing money. “Others have built these funds into their budget,” she said.
Harwood board member Rosemarie White said that the approximate $1million in soft costs that are tacked on to the cost for repairs by TruexCullins could be saved if many repairs were dealt with through maintenance reserve funds.
A FAIR COMPROMISE
“Why are we going through this exercise if it’s barely going to affect the tax rate for all of us?” asked Waterbury board member Alex Thomsen. She said that the solution may not be to limit Warren’s bond amount but to figure out how to explain to taxpayers that the bond will not drive up property taxes substantially.
“Why does it really matter?” Thomsen added. “No one is getting a new garden out of this. We’re talking about things that are important for our school.”
Staples said that the new article “seems like a fair compromise,” and study committee members voted unanimously in favor of it.
A vote for the accelerated version of the merger will occur on June 7 and the study committee will host a public forum at the Harwood Union High School library on Thursday, March 31, at 6:30 p.m.