Voters weigh in with questions on school bond

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

GM Facilities Director Todd Parah (back to the camera) shows a group the high school's boiler room. <small>Photo by Shawn Cunningham

GM Facilities Director Todd Parah, back to the camera,  shows a group the high school’s boiler room. Photo by Shawn Cunningham

Last Thursday evening, the Green Mountain Unified School District held a “walk through” at Green Mountain High School in Chester to give voters the chance to see why board members believe the proposed $20 million renovation bond that will come before them on Nov. 8 is necessary.

The idea was not only to give people a chance to see the conditions behind the scenes of the 51-year-old school building, which accounts for about 79 percent of the bond, but also to ask questions of Todd Parah, the director of facilities. Only four people showed up and they asked serious, thoughtful questions about the projects.

But as many as 18 voters attended an information meeting at the school and via Zoom on Tuesday night to ask questions about the projects with a particular focus on why the school’s systems had been allowed to get to a point that a large bond was needed to set things right. Andover resident Scott Kendall asked why the school hadn’t made the upgrades as part of the annual budget over the years.

Longtime board member Joe Fromberger of Andover, who chairs the GMUSD board, said that annual school budgets are a political calculation since they have to be approved by the voters and that saving taxpayer money for capital improvements to be made later through higher taxes now doesn’t always fly. Fromberger and TRSU Superintendent Lauren Fierman pointed to the goal of keeping annual budget increases to 2 or 3 percent as the norm.

Board member Josh Schroeder looked at the idea that buying high grade equipment 50 years ago and maintaining it well had saved taxpayers money over the life of the school and now it’s time to refit the school again with good systems.

There were several questions about the validity of the budget numbers for the projects in GMUSD’s three schools — Chester-Andover Elementary, Cavendish Town Elementary and Green Mountain High. Eric Lafayette of Energy Efficient Investments said that the numbers are mostly estimates based on conversations with sub-contractors. EEI will serve as the general contractor/construction manager, according to Lafayette. With regard to the effects of inflation, he said that if the project looks like it’s going over budget they would prioritize the most crucial parts and adjust the scope of the work. At the same time, he expressed confidence that the contingency for inflation that was built into the proposal should be enough.

Voters in person and on Zoom gather to ask questions about the bond on Tuesday night

Voters in person and on Zoom gather to ask questions about the bond on Tuesday night.

Fielding a question about whether Ludlow and Mount Holly would be paying for the bond, Fierman noted that those schools are in a school-choice district and can send their high school students to any school and pay that school’s tuition. Whether an additional charge for the capital improvements would be part of that is a trickier question, she said.

“We set our tuition, but the state weighs in on whether it’s reasonable,” said Fierman. “Tuition goes up, and hopefully the state respects it.”

Area resident Eric Schubert, who has a background in major infrastructure building projects, noted that some of the budget numbers seemed very precise while others did not. He pointed to the cost of elevator work ($174,000) versus fire doors and railings ($1.16 million).

Lafayette said that elevator work has a limited scope and particular vendors, while the doors and railings can be code issues that may require more work. The same was true with budget lines where the true scope of work isn’t known “until you get into a ceiling or a wall.”

While Kendall asked why the projects could not be managed in-house by Parah, Schubert thought that the school managing the project in two years seemed “ludicrous.” But Lafayette clarified that his firm would be the construction manager and Schubert said he felt better knowing that.

Schubert said he hoped that as much of the work could be kept local as possible. Lafayette responded that many contractors have so much work they are less likely to bid on jobs at a distance and that local companies were more likely to bid. Both agreed that there are not so many subcontractors available in southern Vermont as in other areas.

There was a question about why the bond ballot was not included with the General Election ballot mailed out by the state of Vermont.

“We would have liked to, but we were told that the bond ballot could not be sent with” the state ballot, said Fierman. Click the link below to learn more about voting on the bond.

Already voted? There’s still the GMUSD renovation bond

One of the voters who attended last Thursday’s GM walk-through suggested that the reason it was so sparsely attended was that most people had already made up their minds and didn’t feel the need to see the areas that the district says need attention nor ask questions that could challenge or clarify the district’s arguments. At the same time, GMUSD board chair Fromberger said it was surprising to him how many people he has spoken with who are unaware.

If you are still on the fence about the bond here are some articles The Telegraph has published recently.

What’s in the $20 million GM school renovation bond? Part 1 the high school

What’s in the $20 million GM school renovation bond? Part 2 the elementary schools

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  1. Raymond Makul says:

    Interest rates are rising rapidly due to Federal Reserve actions to curb spending. This is not an opportune time to be floating bonds with inflated interest rates.

  2. Jen Leak says:

    Many thanks to the people who attended the meeting in person and asked questions and to the Chester Telegraph for covering this. I attended via zoom only because the Chester Telegraph provided the link and information that it was an option. I wonder if more people would have attended via zoom if it had been included on the Warning as an option, and if the zoom link had been made available in other places – I looked on GMUHS website and did not see it there.