On October 30, 2019

Costs of new high school spark controversy

 

By Curt Peterson

Ben Ford, chair of the Windsor Central middle school/high school project committee presented “financial feasibility study” results to the Windsor Central Unified Union School District board on Oct. 23.

The new building as designed may cost $63 million. Adding upgrades and deferred maintenance on the district’s other campuses, including The Prosper Valley School’s moisture and mold issues, brings the total to $68 million.

Ford said current enrollment is 1,024 students. To put the cost in perspective, $68 million is $66,406 per student, or $2,213 per student per year for 30 years — the term of a bond.

Killington board representative Jim Haff said a $68 million bond would increase education taxes over 30% in all seven participating towns.

“Taxes are a major issue in our town,” Haff said. “High taxes turn off prospective new families, and as taxes go up, people cut back on other expenses. It hurts local businesses too.”

Burlington voters recently approved a $70 million school bond, Ford wrote in an email to the Mountain Times.

But they “have about 4,000 kids compared to our 1,000. As a result the … resulting tax impact is also about a quarter of what we would see if we were to put the entire cost … in a bond measure.”

Ford believes the district can mitigate the effect on education taxes if the bond amount can be reduced.

“We’re working hard to find ways to not have to [put the entire cost in the bond], like finding private/grant funding, energy performance credits, leveraging local option tax proceeds, etc.,” Ford wrote.

The board calculated $30 million in non-bond funding would reduce the education tax increase to around 18%. Ford’s committee has a list of prospective donors, some of whom might be offered “naming rights.”

Finance and Facilities Manager Mike Concessi said he will get interest rate quotes from banks and other sources for comparison, as interest has a major effect on tax impact.

The board agrees that “something” has to be done about the current conditions in the existing Middle/High School buildings, erected in 1957 and added to in 1960. Several board members have taken a tour with Facilities Manager Joe Rigoli, who has also posted photos of building problems on the WCSU website.

Asked the cost to upgrade existing structures, Rigoli said $20 million would make necessary and acceptable changes, but would not alter the outside appearance or improve interior design, something Superintendent Mary Beth Banios feels would be required to make the campus a “leader” in the region.

“Education is changing rapidly,” Banios told the board, “and we need this project to keep up with those changes.”

A few slides of the proposed buildings and interior design were projected at the meeting, but there are no images on the WCSU website. Architect Leigh Sherwood of Lavallee Brensinger Architects had previously reviewed the design with the board. Ford provided a copy of the retreat presentation to the Mountain Times.

The board members represent seven individual town school districts, each with its own interests. Ford asked the representatives to take “the message” regarding the school proposal back to their town governments to help get “civic endorsement” for the project.

A few board members said raising taxes will be a tough sell in their towns.

Barnard representative Pamela Fraser didn’t feel there are enough numbers regarding the final tax implications.

“I can’t do that,” she said. “I might not even endorse the project myself.”

Patti Kuzmickas, Pomfret representative, said she doesn’t feel pitching the project is her responsibility, and there is resentment among residents in her town.

“People won’t understand why they should approve $68 million for a new school when the district won’t spend $500,000 to re-open The Prosper Valley School,” she said.

Haff added the prospective lack of athletic fields during construction, which Ford wrote would affect only the football team, who would have to play away games or at another facility for 18-24 months, would be a problem for Killington voters.

Board co-chair Paige Hiller, who left the meeting early, gave some parting advice.

“Make the goal a maximum tax increase of 10-15%, then design the project and the financing necessary to meet that goal,” she said.

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