FAIR HAVEN — This Town Meeting Day, March 3, voters in the Slate Valley Unified Union School District will be asked to approve a nearly $60 million bond to fund a comprehensive facilities upgrade plan.
In October 2018, the SVUUSD school board authorized a committee to look at how to redesign the district in terms of infrastructure to create more educational opportunities and efficiencies. The result, the Slate Valley Innovation Project, proposed a district-wide reconfiguration of facilities and students. The total projected cost of the bond is $59,499,989.
SVUUSD serves the towns of Fair Haven, Castleton, Hubbardton, Benson, West Haven and Orwell.
A major piece of the project is construction of a new district middle school on the Fair Haven Union High School campus as well as infrastructure upgrades to the existing high school building totaling $52,233,781.
Built in 1957 with additions in the 1970s and 1990s, SVUUSD Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said the high school’s infrastructure needs alone are in the tens of millions of dollars. An aging heating system has become difficult to regulate; classroom temperatures can climb to more than 100 degrees, broken steam pipes have caused parts of the floor to get as hot as 160 degrees requiring rubber mats to be placed over them.
“At some point you’ve got to invest in your infrastructure. And if that means we have to to reconfigure to do that, then that’s what we have to do,” Olsen-Farrell said.
The current high school population is 360. The new middle school would bring a projected 200 seventh and eighth graders from around the district to the campus. As for sixth graders, Olsen-Farrell said the board is “100% committed” to keeping them in their home towns.
Olsen-Farrell has addressed concerns about middle and high school students mingling by reminding parents that such interactions already occur to a degree. The district has single-tier busing, which means students in grades kindergarten through 12 ride to school on the same bus. She also noted that middle school sports teams sports already use high school facilities.
And while the middle school will share a campus with the high school, she said the schools would function autonomously. The schools would have separate administrations, entrances and schedules.
Olsen-Farrell said the project will modernize the FHUHS campus, creating a safe, comfortable, accessible space that is conducive to learning.
“We know that when the environment is better for kids, they learn better,” she said. “It’s very hard to learn in a dark classroom that’s literally 95 degrees.”
In addition to more hospitable temperatures and various safety and ADA-compliance upgrades, the high school and middle school plan would incorporate more natural light, green spaces, expanded arts spaces, a STEM lab, a renovated theater and more dynamic classrooms to facilitate cooperation and collaboration across fields of study.
The project would also implement energy-efficiency measures, including LED lighting, more efficient windows and biomass heating.
Outside, Olsen-Farrell said turf would be added to LaPlaca Field. While she acknowledged it might seem like a luxury, she noted field utilization is already a struggle. Turf would make the field usable for more of the year.
The plan would also see big changes in towns around the district. First, would be the closure of Castleton Village School. While the articles of agreement under Act 46 prevent the district from selling the building for four years, it can “educationally repurpose” it. Olsen-Farrell said the district has a letter of commitment from Castleton University, which plans to lease the Castleton Village School building.
Fair Haven Grade School would receive two new ADA-compliant elevators totaling $842,066.
Orwell Village School, meanwhile, would see a new cafeteria and gymnasium connected to the existing school building. Currently, the adjacent town hall building functions as both. That building would be demolished to make way for a parking lot.
Before Orwell Village School merged with SVUUSD in July 2019, the town of Orwell had discussed a similar plan for the school; however, it remains unclear if there is consensus among residents regarding the town hall’s fate.
Olsen-Farrell said a vote in favor of the bond does not necessarily mean the town hall would be demolished; Orwell residents would have the final say.
This Orwell Village School project would cost $6,068,312. Demolition of the town hall, if approved, would cost $355,829. If the building remains, that money would not be spent.
For some in SVUUSD, the project may look like the their worst Act 46 fears come to life — the closure of a local school, the relocation of students to another town, pricey new buildings, the loss of community and local identity.
Both Olsen-Farrell and SVUUSD School Board Chairwoman Julie Finnegan are aware of the optics.
“Nobody’s looking to close schools, but we’re looking to make sure we’re giving (students) the best educational opportunity,” Finnegan said, explaining that some middle school classes in the district have only a dozen students; some have as few as three.
Those small class sizes make it difficult to meet the needs of students. Finnegan said a district middle school connected to the high school would allow accelerated students to easily access high school-level courses and create a critical mass that would put all students on an equal footing heading into ninth grade.
The project is slated to start April, 2021, and be completed by August 2023. The new middle school would open that fall.
As such, the bond would not be reflected in the proposed $26,623,041 school budget for fiscal year 2021, which voters will also be considering on March 3.
Olsen-Farrell said the full cost of bond would not go into effect until 2024. Payments in the first year of the bond would be interest only and the years leading up to 2024 would be lesser amounts.
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.
Cheryl Scarzello, SVUUSD director of finance, said the estimates are based on the proposed FY21 budget, “decreasing it conservatively for efficiencies to be realized by operating one district middle school and using the highest annual principal and interest payment.”
If voters reject this bond, Olsen-Farrell said another would be likely since there are still massive infrastructure needs, which would include Castleton Village School were it to remain open.
Finnegan characterized the project as an important economic investment for the all towns in the district.
“You always have two choices: increase your taxes or increase your tax base,” Finnegan said. “If people want to move here because of the school, that’s just going to help all around — all our towns — as a group.”
A public hearing on the bond will be held during the SVUUSD annual meeting Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. at Fair Haven Union High School. A presentation on the proposed school budget is scheduled for 7 p.m.