In late 2024, Valley residents will vote on a bond intended to fund repairs and other renovations at Harwood Union High School). The Harwood Union Unified School District (HUUSD) recently held the first of a series of forums in which community members were asked to provide feedback about options for the bond.
About a dozen members of the public gathered at Harwood on November 16, first hearing a presentation from the HUUSD Board about the board’s rationale for seeking the bond, then asking questions about items on a list of construction projects totaling $71 million.
BULK OF OVERALL COST
The bulk of the overall cost comes from what the board says is a need to replace existing infrastructure – including a new roof, updated electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems, repaving the school’s parking lot, updating the fire alarm system, and replacing of the school’s outdoor running track surface. This category of projects totals $64 million.
Ray Daigle, HUUSD director of facilities and operations, said that the school’s plumbing system hasn’t had pipes replaced since 1996 and that trying to replace equipment on the outdated ventilation system is now costly and complex – at times requiring that the ceiling be taken apart to do what would otherwise be a simple repair.
HUUSD superintendent Michael Leichliter said that many of these projects are crucial to the school’s functioning – that “it will be done, either through the bond, or through piecemeal capital improvements.” HUUSD Board member Ashley Wood said that funding several projects together with the bond would allow the work to be done more efficiently.
The HUUSD Board hired the architectural firm TruexCullins to draft plans and complete at least some of these projects following next year’s bond vote. Architect David Epstein said that the school is in need of a dehumidifying system in order to prevent mold, as well as central air conditioning, as global warming has increased temperatures and “climate control would extend the learning season.”
Other items on the draft project list total about $7 million and include improvements in energy efficiency, replacing items like cabinetry and renovating spaces to improve student learning – a center for trade and technical education, a demonstration kitchen, a middle school makers space, an art gallery and classroom furniture that better supports learning.
“We know that since the original building was built [in 1965], education has changed – what engagement is, what academic rigor is,” said Harwood co-principal Laurie Greenberg. She said that school-based learning used to be organized around an instructor lecturing to students, but that today, educators are attempting to create more student-centered environments, which has implications for learning. “Your environment does matter in that,” she said, “and there’s only so much you can do with paint and a few chairs.”
Most of the items on the draft list were carried over from a 2021 bond, which amounted to about $60 million and was voted down by taxpayers. While the HUUSD Board removed some big items from the previous bond, construction costs have soared, making the current list of projects more costly, according to TruexCullins and the board.
Leichliter said that “I can assure everyone that the board and administration are very intent on trying to be as transparent as possible throughout the process, knowing that pricing and everything else is evolving.”
When the board opened the floor to the public, one community member called the construction of a second gym and fitness center totaling $11 million “a waste of money.”
“The sports thing is tricky,” someone added, “I wonder, how many students are served? Which sport? And why that sport?” They were referring to supporting renovations to the school’s outdoor track facilities, which could have a concession stand, restrooms, additional parking, and other features for up to $4.5 million. This project is considered ‘optional’ and not included in the $71 million total.
Some community members pointed to the need to attract more families to The Valley and said that updating the track facilities might help.
Most public commentary focused on how the board might work to garner support for the 2024 bond vote. “Be aware of the demographics,” someone suggested, “because there will be folks who do not have kids in the school system . . . who are feeling disconnected from the educational process.”
Someone asked the board and district to make information about property tax increases more accessible, should the bond vote pass. “As soon as you start talking about taxes, my head explodes,” they said, “so make it understandable.”
HUUSD director of finance and operations Lisa Estler said that tax implications are complicated, as the state will be changing how tax dollars are allocated to school districts beginning in 2025, via Act 127. To make estimates regarding the bond, she said that the district is awaiting figures from the Vermont Agency of Education, which will then feed into tax commissioners’ estimates of property taxes. She added that with the new funding formula, homeowners in the district would be eligible for a tax rate cap of 5% if the district does not increase spending per student more than 10% from year to year.
A community member asked if other HUUSD schools will need repairs and renovations in the near future – whether another bond could be on the horizon. “That might be down the road a little bit,” Wood said, “but it’s not on our radar.”
The next public forum will take place on November 28 at 6 p.m. at the Brookside Primary School gym. The HUUSD Board is currently distributing an online survey where the public can provide feedback. After analyzing results from the surveys and the public forums, the board will put together a final list of items to be included in the bond, followed by a vote in November 2024.