What’s in the $20 million GM school renovation bond? Part 1 of 2: We take a look at plans for Green Mountain High

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

With just about three weeks before the end of mail-in voting and the Tuesday, Nov. 8 Election Day, the public can weigh in on the proposed $20 million bond to renovate the three schools in the Green Mountain School District. Board members, administration and school staff are putting the final touches on messages they hope will reach people who are not aware of the bond and convince voters to pass it. And in the interest of voters being informed as they cast their ballots, The Telegraph is looking at the multi-year project and how it came to be.

If you have already voted by mail, you will still need to vote on the bond. Click here to learn how.

The high school was built at a cost of $3.2 million and opened in 1971. <small>Photos by Shawn Cunningham</small>

The high school was built at a cost of $3.2 million and opened in 1971. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Let’s start with Green Mountain High, the work of which accounts for about 80 percent of the total bond. Next week, we’ll explain what the bond holds for the two elementary schools: Cavendish Town and Chester-Andover.

Green Mountain Union High School was formed in 1967 by the towns of Andover, Cavendish and Chester and the building opened in 1971. Since then, little capital work has been done on it. Work that has been done includes enclosing the open air bridge that connects the school with the gym/cafeteria complex to create the current gallery in 1981, conversion from electric hot water to boilers for building heat in 1988 and a new roof in 2017. Many of the building’s mechanical and electrical systems are original to the building. That includes most of the equipment used to heat and ventilate classrooms, offices and other parts of the school.

In 2021, the Vermont Agency of Education sent an online survey to the state’s schools asking as many as 110 questions about each school building’s facilities. The survey was mandated by Act 72 of 2021 which required collecting information to use in deciding whether and how the state might lift its 2007 moratorium on aid for school construction. Using the information collected from 305 schools representing 384 school buildings, in 2022 the AOE published a report that listed the GM district as having the seventh most depleted infrastructure in Vermont.

The GMUSD bond proposal began in July of 2019 as a “free energy audit” conducted by Energy Efficient Investments of Merrimack, N.H. The company proposed the audit to the GM Facilities Committee, which brought it to the board for approval. With that done, EEI inspected each of the district’s three schools and spoke with administrators and physical plant supervisors about problems as well as wishes.

The first iteration of the project, revealed on Sept. 16, 2021, weighed in at more than $29 million. While a number of items were eliminated over several board meetings, members were convinced that much of the schools’ internal systems — mechanical, electrical and heating — were reaching the end of their useful life, could conceivably fail and needed to be replaced or upgraded. Here is the final tally of work and projected costs. 

A calculation by the supervisory union says that the twenty year, $20,474,353 bond will add approximately $463 per year in taxes on a property assessed at $300,000.

Looking behind the scenes

A visitor to the school is greeted with clean, bright and well-painted halls and classrooms, but that outward appearance belies the condition of the school’s systems, according to Facilities Director Todd Parah. “You have to look deeper and go behind some (mechanical room) doors to see the shape they’re in,” he says.

Cavendish Town Manager Brendan McNamara used to handle facilities for the high school and agrees, “Maintenance has been incredible, but multiple things should have been done over the years.”

Heating and ventilation

A boiler installed in 1988 is among the heating equipment that has worked beyond its expected life.

A boiler installed in 1988 is among the heating equipment that has worked beyond its expected life.

At about $12 million, heating and ventilation is one big issue because it involves changing the way heat and fresh air are handled. A trip to the boiler room reveals two boilers: one from 1988 and one from 2010. According to Parah, the older boiler is well-past its useful life and is unreliable. He added that on colder winter days, the multi-level and multi-winged Green Mountain cannot be heated with just one boiler.

McNamara agrees.

“Even when I was there, one boiler seemed set to fail at any point and if (the other) goes down, you don’t have school,” says McNamara

The gymnasium has much the same problem Parah told The Telegraph. One of the two air handlers is on the fritz and the other struggles to keep the huge room warm on the coldest days.  These devices are mounted to the ceiling and heat air using hot water from the boiler. According to Parah, if the second one goes down, the gym would be unusable in the winter.

One of the school's many 'unit ventilators.'

One of the school’s many ‘unit ventilators.’

The plan is to replace the current boilers with high efficiency condensing boilers and to convert all three schools to propane, which is more efficient than oil. That would allow the schools to negotiate for better prices for propane in bulk. The boilers and the conversion to propane are a relatively small part of the renovation budget. The real expense is in the control and delivery of heat and ventilation.

Currently GM’s classrooms, offices and other spaces have “unit ventilators,”  which are original to the school. These are basically hot water radiators with “squirrel cage” fans that move the heat or outside air into the room.  The current system can only accommodate a MERV 8 filter while the proposed system would allow for a MERV 13.  MERV is a scale that quantifies the size of particle that can get through a filter. The higher the number the more restrictive the filter, the cleaner the air.

The heaters, cabinets and windows are all one unit.

The heaters, cabinets and windows are all one unit.

A signal to provide more or less heat or ventilation to a room comes to each unit via a pneumatic control system that was installed in 1988 when the school switched from electric hot water to oil fired.

Parah says the pneumatic controls are not precise, and many of the fresh air vents don’t close completely so there’s wide variation in heat and cold from room to room — when it works.

McNamara remembers having no heat in classrooms and needing to drain “air bound” pipes in the mornings to get the heat moving. Parah says that still happens.

Replacing those unit ventilators won’t be simple since the framing for the windows and the heater and vents are all of a piece.

A unit ventilator is integral to the window frame.

A unit ventilator is integral to the window frame.

“When you take those heaters out, the windows go with them,” says McNamara. The heaters are also attached to metal cabinets that will also have to come out. The plan is to remove all the unit ventilators, cabinets and windows and replace them with new windows and millwork. The school’s heat would then be converted to hot air delivered via duct work with electronic controls that can be tracked via computer or smartphone and adjusted remotely.

While the ceilings are being replaced to accommodate the duct work, the plan is to install high-efficiency LED lighting throughout the school. In addition to saving energy, Parah notes that the 48-inch fluorescent bulbs that are currently used throughout the school will not be available to buy in Vermont starting in 2024.

Also included in the work to replace the unit ventilators is asbestos remediation, painting and floor tile replacement.

Deferred maintenance/upgrades

Year after year, The Telegraph has reported on schools boards concerned about sending budget increases to the voters and keeping a tight rein on maintenance and capital spending. Consequently, major fixes can get put off until they become unavoidable.

Only one of the heaters in the gym is working and the school has held off on fixing the second pending the bond vote.

Only one of the heaters in the gym is working and the school has held off on fixing the second pending the bond vote.

The school’s elevator has been deteriorating for years and it’s been a topic of concern at school board meetings. Recently it has gotten some new parts, but the renovation plan contains a new cab with better controls and other upgrades. The original electrical transformers stationed in closets around the school generate a great deal of heat and are inefficient. Under the plan they would be completely replaced. In addition, the plan calls for an upgrade to the electrical service and fire panel. The former would allow for de-humidification that would make the building more comfortable on hot days without the expense of air conditioning. The latter, Parah says, would allow for more flexibility for additional safety and security.

Kitchen renovations include a new stove and a hood with a fire suppression system. It would also replace the freezer that has problems with leaking air and causes condensation in the wall adjacent to it. Parah says that in the summer that wall is always wet and it promotes mold. There is also a line for re-pointing the brickwork around the building.

Public safety and building codes

There are also several items that were not part of the fire or building codes in 1971 and would not need to be upgraded except that the scale of the renovation will likely make correcting them. These include fire doors and new railings in the building’s stairwells. Those two alone come in at $1.1 million.

While he awaits the voters decision on the bond, Parah is holding off on fixing a few things that the renovations would replace. A valve above one of the boilers has a leak that would cost around $12,000 to fix, but would be  torn out if new boilers were installed. Likewise, one of the gym air handlers could be repaired, but if the renovation goes forward it would also be removed and a $5,000 fix would give the school a fully operational air compressor, but that would not be needed if the heating system is switched from pneumatic to electronic controls.

If voters approve the bond, work can begin in the summer of 2023 when school lets out and continue on and off for two to three years. If not, the board will have to look at paring down the request and sending it back to the voters in March. It may also have to increase the budget for facilities to cope with keeping the existing systems working.

“If some of that work is not done, you’re going to have a major problem,” says McNamara.

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  1. Judy Verespy says:

    In my experience, essential renovations like these that are voted down the first time, always come back again with a higher price tag for fewer upgrades. I am thinking most recently of the emergency services building, which could have been larger and less costly had it been voted for the first first few times it was on the ballot. Let’s not be short sighted again. A building constructed in 1967 isn’t going to last forever, and will save money over time with more updated, efficient upgrades.

  2. For this article, we looked at the library as an upgrade rather than a necessary renovation. Our specific focus was on the basic systems that the school needs to operate and how old or depleted those are.

  3. G. Donohue says:

    This article neglects to mention the library renovation completed in 2012 at cost of $100,000 (Chester Telegraph 5/2012). The school directors have always been making frugal decisions regarding what could reasonably be upgraded at a minimal cost to the tax payers. I agree that a line item presentation of the proposed upgrades would be helpful so voters can make an informed decision.

  4. sarah yake says:

    The above mentioned much needed, where do tax payers go on line to find the itemized list of costs for all the work proposed? Maybe this could be posted for the public to view before the vote.

  5. Raymond Makul says:

    No State or Federal funds available for these needs?

  6. I’m a curmudgeon about spending but I would approve those upgrades in the High School. It would be better if each item was in a list with a price tag so nothing that might be considered unnecessary can be buried in the verbiage.

  7. Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds are being used for heating and ventilation work at CAES.

  8. Deborah Wright says:

    Just wondering why ESSER money is not being used instead of a bond?