On June 5, 2024

New options presented for the reconstruction of Woodstock MS/HS

By Curt Peterson and Polly Mikula

About 70 people attended the Mountain Views Supervisory Union (MVSU) school board meeting Monday, June 3, to hear a presentation by Marty Spaulding and Paul Stafford of PCI Capital Project Consulting, and Kurt Naser of PC Construction, on three options for fixing the 50-year-old middle/high school facilities in Woodstock.

A bond vote for $99 million to build a new facility failed on Town Meeting Day March 5 by 10 percentage points —1,910-1,570. Spaulding summarized the public feedback gathered since, saying “people wanted to see more options.”

Feedback was solicited from voters in the seven district towns of Bridgewater, Killington, Plymouth, Pomfret, Reading and Woodstock.

 At the meeting Monday, attendees learned about the following three options: 

Option 1: renovating the existing facility

Because of the well-documented heating system inadequacy, structural problems, troubling design flaws, air circulation issues, etc. (the list is long) Stafford said it would take $101.3 million to renovate the current building up to current state code. Additionally, the timeline for that work to be completed would be longer, as designs would need to be developed from scratch. An estimated date for completion was set for September 2030.
Adding athletic fields and geothermal climate control (for an “apples to apples” comparison with the original new build plan) would bring the total cost up to $106 million.

Option 2: a hybrid solution

This option included a new smaller three-story high school.  The middle school would remain in the existing building with one wing removed. Only very modest “cosmetic” renovations would be done for the middle school. The hybrid option had a projected cost of $91.9 million — the least expensive of the options presented — but also came with an increase annual operating costs of $1.2 million for staff required to operate two separate locations. A new future middle school would also have to be planned at some point down the road, as the upgrades to that facility are not expected to extend the life of the building significantly.  

“The project would be done by March, 2029, and students could move into the new building then, before final alterations to the current school,” Stafford said. 

Option 3: a new build, with two sub-options

Option 3A is the original plan for the new campus, which failed last March. It would now necessitate passing a $105 million bond to cover projected construction costs. The facility would be ready by summer 2027.

Option 3B is a “stripped down version” of that original plan, without the art wing, second level offices, second floor conference and lounge, installing a flat roof, and reducing auditorium stage lighting. The cost of option 3B is $100.3 million.

Public response

While most members of the board and public thanked the presenters for their work and creativity coming up with varied solutions, many were critical of the cost, timeline and some underlying assumptions. 

The proximity of cost for all options presented — between $91.9 million and $106 million — was shocking to many, with multiple people noting that voters had rejected the bond primarily because “it wasn’t affordable.” 

Instead of trying to make the quality of renovation equal to that of the new build for an “apple to apples” comparison, the consultants should have started with estimates of what the community can afford and build solutions within a few different budget scales, suggested Elisa Tarlow of Woodstock. 

Stafford responded that the state of the current building was in such bad shape that more minor renovations (i.e. less expensive “bandaids”) were no longer a viable option. Simply too many systems were failing. “You can’t necessarily just put a new roof on an old structure,” he said. “The new insulation requirements mandated by the state make the roof heavier, for example, so you need a structure that can support that.”

Others expressed deep concern that a bond of this size simply couldn’t pass in the current economic climate. Education tax increases went up by over 20% for many district towns. A similar increase was seen last fiscal year as well, and there are currently few plans to curb such increases in education funding.

“Yes, that’s another dimension to consider,” said MVSU Board Vice Chair Ben Ford, who also chairs the school district’s Finance Committee and the HS/MS Working Group. 

On a positive financial note, Ford said that the $3.5 million in pledged donations for the new school project weren’t affected by the failure of the bond, and are still committed.

Former school board member Jim Haff from Killington said he believes the state is planning further school consolidation, creating “hub campuses” to serve additional towns from other districts. He advised the board to wait and see if MVSU might be a hub and could attract state financing for a new facility.

Woodstock community member Marc Weinstein noted that two new legislative bills will significantly affect the school district and must be considered in conjunction with any plans. Most importantly, H.887, “An act relating to homestead property tax yields, nonhomestead rates, and policy changes to education finance and taxation” could re-implement “excess spending thresholds” and put MVSU back into a “penalty phase,” based on its per pupil spending, which would exacerbate costs for taxpayers just to maintain the status quo. 

That bill still awaits its fate on the governor’s desk.

Another bill, H. 871, “An act relating to the development of an updated state aid to school construction program,” was signed and goes into effect in less than an month (July 1). It outlines specifically what and how school construction could be funded and what portions of what projects would qualify.

H.871 “may, effectively, put a moratorium on school construction,” Ford said. “It’s really frustrating to be this far along in our process … It hasn’t passed yet… We are waiting to see what, if anything changes, when it is passed and what that may mean for us.”

Weinstein echoed Haff’s call for the district to wait to understand the implications of these measures before rushing another vote so that taxpayers could understand the full impact of their decisions. 

Haff  implored the board to wait until more is known from the state and not hold a vote until at least Town Meeting Day in March 2025 and for all members to read the text of bills H.877 and H.871.   “I believe after reading it at least 9 of your 18 board members will see the value in waiting for another vote,” said Haff. 

Former school district board member Pamela Fraser from Barnard pointed out the national birth rate is decreasing, which flies in the face of hopes that the new school will attract additional students.

“It isn’t that we can’t attract new students to a new school — it’s that there won’t be any new students to attract,” Fraser said.

Ford said the hopes for increased enrollment are based on known local opportunities, including the fact that currently the MVSU attracts only 5 of Harland’s142 tuition students. “We’re obviously not going to get all of them, but it’s reasonable to expect we could get more.”

Rayna Bishop, MVSU executive administrative assistant to the Superintendent, who processes all enrollments for the district, said she has enrolled more new students from Ludlow for the upcoming school year than ever before, adding that she’s also fielded many calls from interested parents throughout the region who are waiting to see if the district moves forward with a new build before enrolling.

While nothing was decided at the June 3 meeting, at the next School Board meeting scheduled for June 17 the board may select one of the options presented to move forward with; or it may decide to keep the options open or go back to the consultants and ask them to draft up additional ones. Between June 4 and 17 board members will gather feedback on the new campus ideas and answer questions about the options in their respective towns. 

A special election bond vote could happen as early as September, but only if the already designed Option 3A or 3B is selected.

Public feedback before the June 17 meeting is likely to determine next steps. Contact your town representative to share feedback. School board member emails are at:  mtnviews.org/school-board-members.

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