News Analysis: Next steps for GMUSD after bond defeat

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Voters in four area towns defeated a $20M school bond. What steps can the district take next?

Last Tuesday’s 47-vote defeat of a bond issue to renovate three school buildings that make up the Green Mountain Unified School District is on the agenda for that board’s monthly meeting on Thursday, Nov. 17 as members and administrators figure out where to go from here.

At previous meetings, when the possibility that the $20 million bond could be defeated at the polls came up, discussions centered around sending the same bond proposal back to the voters while doing a better job of getting the word out about it or sharpening their pencils to bring the total down to a number that voters might feel more comfortable with.

How do the two options stack up?

Option One might work since several election poll workers told The Telegraph that a large number of voters said they were unaware of the bond and did not want to cast a ballot on something about which they knew nothing.  The district did mail a postcard to voters in Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish and Chester but it was dense with lots of information in small type. And Energy Efficient Investments, the company whose “energy audit” kicked off this effort, put together several videos that the schools and the supervisory union put on their websites, which don’t attract that many voters.

A tour of the high school’s facilities was sparsely attended. Was that because voters had made up their minds or didn’t know about the upcoming vote?

That lack of reach may be responsible for the low turnout for a behind-the-scenes tour of the high school’s infrastructure and for an information meeting that could have been attended in person or  via Zoom. Only about five attended the walk-through while just 20 people showed up for the meeting.

While some have said that the low attendance was a sign that voters did not need information because they had already made up their minds, the fact that many showed up at the polls unaware of the vote means that the outreach effort needs rethinking. In Chester, where a total of 1,427 residents voted only 912 cast bond ballots. The numbers in Andover were 413 total and 249 bond. And Cavendish saw a total 1,172 votes but only 445 for the bond. The numbers for Baltimore were not available.

While some of that may be a result of the state mailing the general election ballot to every vote without the local ballot, clerks in the three towns said some voters either requested absentee bond ballots or came in especially to vote on the bond.

Even if the school district improves its outreach, coming back to voters with the $20 million proposal does come with some risk. A second defeat would mean the school would have to delay the work for another year — possibly at a higher cost — because, by state statute, a municipality can only bring a bond to the voters two times in a given 12 months.

Option Two likely would mean cutting the size of the bond proposal. For example the board might choose to only include those building systems likely to fail or in need of expensive repairs, leaving those that could be wrapped up in regular budgets over several years.

Board chair Joe Fromberger asks Davey to group together the expenses associated with each of the major projects at Oct. 5, 2021 meeting

One difficulty with teasing out what to keep and what to set aside is the consolidation of projects onto a final list by Energy Efficient Investments. It was EEI’s energy audit begun back in 2019 that got the ball rolling by identifying  systems in the three schools that were inefficient or at the end of their usable lives. But EEI also listed a number of projects that brought the original total to more than $28 million.

As the board worked its way through meetings, cutting or trimming the list and requesting that EEI come back with more precise dollar amounts, it was not unusual for EEI’s next spreadsheet to be formatted differently and not satisfying the board request.

At the the Oct. 5, 2021 board meeting, Green Mountain Unified School District chair Joe Fromberger asked Mike Davey of EEI to provide details on each specific project including potential energy savings and what code updates each might trigger.  Instead, at a special meeting on Oct. 26, Davey presented four options: A through D. These were groups of projects rather than the detail the board requested. See the groups below.

“You said last time you were going to go back and look at these numbers, but you haven’t changed any,” said board member Dennis Reilly, who suggested going with different projects for different buildings. In the end, rather than asking EEI to go back and get the numbers it had requested, the board elected to pick and choose among the options and then add a few more.

Now, with the defeat of its proposal, the board could review the options again or ask EEI to fulfill Fromberger’s original Oct. 5 request.

EEI has put a substantial amount of time and money into getting this project on the ballot and will be keen to have another chance because it doesn’t get paid for its work to date unless the bond passes. At the same time, EEI would prefer a larger bond since the amount that the company will make is tied to the size of the project, but a somewhat smaller project would be preferable to no project at all.

All parties have at least some incentive to reduce costs while still providing the improvements they believe the schools need. If they do that, the board could combine the two options by finding some reductions to bring the proposal to a price it thinks will fly with voters and improve the outreach to voters.

When to go back to the voters?

Looking at the results, both Fromberger and Superintendent Lauren Fierman said that the work will still need to be done and that the board needs to figure out its next steps. Fromberger told The Telegraph he is leaning toward having a special election later next year.

By the same token, he also sees the value of going for Town Meeting Day in March, when voters are more focused on local business. Another consideration is that the school budget is also on the ballot in March.

Whether the district opts for a Town Meeting Day vote or a special election, all ballots will be locally generated and anyone requesting an absentee ballot will receive the bond question as well.

In either case, the board will have to look at a large increase in its maintenance budget to deal with several problems that Facilities Director Todd Parah has been reluctant to address because those fixes would not have been needed if the bond had passed.

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  1. Bob Sartini says:

    EEI does the audit. EEI crafts the proposal. EEI does the work. I know nothing about these engineering issues. I do see a conflict of interest though. It is easier to work with just one vendor. I don’t think there’s anything nefarious going on. Consultants do tell people what they want to hear. I would go with Option D. A lot of people might think the bond was just too much.

  2. Raymond Makul says:

    Bonds mean borrowing money, and paying it back, with interest. With inflation peaking, the Federal Reserve is jacking up all interest rates, to make discretionary spending unaffordable. This should wait until interest rates retreat.