FAIR HAVEN — Around 100 people gathered at Fair Haven Union High School Tuesday evening to discuss a proposed $60 million bond for infrastructure and facility improvements throughout the Slate Valley Unified Union School District.
The project would address infrastructure needs at the high school, build a new district middle school, install two new elevators at Fair Haven Grade School and potentially build a new gym and cafeteria at Orwell Village School.
As part of the plan, all seventh- and eighth-grade students would relocate to an autonomous middle school on the FHUHS campus and Castleton Middle School would be leased to Castleton University.
The Herald interviewed Slate Valley officials about the project in a story published on Feb. 10. See bit.ly/0210SchoolBond to read the original story.
SVUUSD serves the towns of Fair Haven, Castleton, Benson, Hubbardton, West Haven and Orwell.
After giving a brief presentation, SVUUSD School Board Chairwoman Julie Finnegan moderated a discussion.
The discussion, at times passionate, remained polite as those in attendance questioned various aspects of the plan.
Of the roughly 15 members of the public who spoke, most were critical of the project in some way.
While no one blamed the current board, a number expressed frustration that years of deferred maintenance have culminated in a pricey project.
Rick Grabowski said he did not support the bond. He said that “neglect for the buildings has been going on for a long time,” and wanted to know how the board could guarantee that pattern of neglect wouldn’t repeat itself.
Orwell resident Paul Stone said he “fought like heck” to keep Orwell out of the SVUUSD, but has come around to the district. He said he sees the bond as a “positive.”
He noted the inadequate infrastructure in Orwell Village School in particular.
“It’s time to bite the bullet and show we care for our children and grandchildren,” he said.
Later in the discussion, Peter Stone, a school board member from Orwell, said that it is “also up to the taxpayer” to hold the board accountable on maintenance issues.
Regarding OVS, the board was clear that the fate of the Orwell Town Hall building, which currently houses school gym and cafeteria, is up to Orwell residents. The bond includes funds for a new building, but if the town decides to keep the existing one, they may do so and that money will not be spent.
Several asked if the board had fully explored potentially re-purposing existing schools rather than building a brand-new middle school.
Finnegan said they had, but any existing building would still require massive upgrades to meet student needs.
“We felt like we wanted to give our middle schoolers the opportunity they deserve,” she said, noting that the current middle schools in the district — some with as few as three students in a classroom — are not putting students on equal footing when they enter ninth grade.
Others expressed concerns of the impact the bond will have on taxes.
A taxpayer with a home assessed at $100,000 would pay additional taxes of an estimated $265 before each town’s common level of appraisal, or CLA, is applied.
Put another way, a taxpayer with an annual household income of $50,000, would pay an estimated $50 in additional taxes annually.
Fair Haven resident and former school superintendent Ray Pentkowski said while he is in favor of making health and safety improvements, he questions the need to do it all at once.
He said the bond showed a “lack of caring for the taxpayer.”
Fair Haven resident Bryce Taylor said he, too, is worried about the tax implications of the bond, noting that Vermont is losing its population “because of taxes.”
He argued that no one is moving to a town because of its school.
Sean Burke, another district resident with real estate experience, echoed that Taylor’s sentiment, and was among several to question the board’s “if you build it, they will come” strategy.
He said people look at taxes before they look at schools when considering a move to a community.
Burke said the Slate Valley area is already economically distressed, and people who are already struggling don’t need another economic burden.
“If this bond doesn’t pass, it’s not that we don’t appreciate the work you did — we just can’t afford it,” he said.
Toward the end of the nearly two-hour discussion, members of the School Board stressed that the district’s infrastructure issues need to be addressed with or without a bond.
Several who spoke wondered if such a large project was absolutely necessary or if it could be tackled piecemeal.
Finnegan argued that if the district was going to be making facilities upgrades, it made sense to “do it to the best of our ability.”
“This work has to be done,” said member Rebeckah St. Peter, explaining that the current bond is the most cost-effective way to accomplish it.
She said if this bond fails, another is inevitable. And even if it’s less than $60 million, it will still be in the “tens of millions.”
Residents in SVUUSD towns will vote on the bond Town Meeting Day, March 3.