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Donation Boosts Unity Bond Vote

Claremont — Unity will have $750,000 to finish its new elementary school, thanks to anonymous donation that will be added to the $550,000 bond issue that voters approved at yesterday’s annual school district meeting.

Initially, the School Board sought $350,000 under article 2 to complete site work at the school, now under construction. However, on Friday, the school district received a letter from a Manchester law firm representing a Newport family that pledged to match every dollar voters approved above $350,000, up to $200,000.

“If the bond issue is approved at $550,000, then the family would provide the full amount of their match of $200,000,” the letter from the law firm Devine Millet read.

Voters first approved the amendment by ballot, 124-49, which increased the article to $550,000. Then they passed the article, 144-47, also by ballot.

The 75 percent approval easily exceeded the required two-thirds majority.

Voters also approved, without comment, a $3.4 million budget, 118-44, but defeated a $29,500 request for the purchase of additional technology, 59-54. Also rejected, by a vote of 84-59, was a petition article to increase the number of School Board members from three to five.

Architect Scott Vaughn said the additional money will make a huge difference in the finished product.

“This is a game-changer in terms of what we can deliver,” Vaughn said during a pause in the meeting. “Previously it would have been a code minimum shell. Now it will be a complete school with all the amenities you would expect in a good elementary school.”

The bond article was debated for about 45 minutes.

Joe Warner, who made the motion to amend the article to $550,000, told voters the donation offer is a challenge and will mean a more complete school.

“This is a gift meant to challenge us to provide enough money to get the school done properly,” said Warner. “(With only $350,000) we are at risk of having a school acceptable to the state but by no means one that is finished or suitable for students.”

School Board member Craig Shute, who said he initially opposed the $350,000 amount in December, urged voters to approve the bond proposal.

“If we don’t do it now, we will have to pay later and it will be a lot more money,” said Shute, who lost his bid for another three-year term on the board March 12.

That view was echoed by Selectboard member Ed Gregory who said the town must get the school done right or risk having to tuition students out.

“Do I like it? No. But we don’t have a choice,” he said.

Opponents said they are not against the school or students but wonder how they can afford the taxes. SAU 6 Business Manager Tim Ball said the bond will add 8 cents to the school tax rate next year and 36 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation the following year, in addition to the $4.71 for the budget.

“I am very disheartened to come in here and be asked for more money,” said resident John Mosher. “We can’t afford this anymore. Where does it end.”

Rhoda Staff said Vaughn promised a school on time and on budget when voters approved a $4.7 million bond issue in August 2010 for a new K-8 school, about a month after the state Board of Education closed the Unity Elementary School because of fire code and safety violations.

“You should have been able to do that,” Staff said.

Resident John Callum voted for the bond in 2010 but did not support the current request. He said the school being constructed is not what voters initially approved.

For those worried about taxes, Bud Cox asked why they didn’t object when the county approved a $7.5 million community corrections center a few years ago.

“Why is it more important to import substance abusers to town and export our kids?” Cox asked.

“If you are going to throw something under the bus, don’t make it the school.”

When Sonya Williams said she was under the impression $350,000 was enough to get everything done, School Board member Prudence McCormick said it was the minimum amount necessary to build a school. “But it won’t be pretty,” she added.

Among other things, the additional $400,000 will mean athletic equipment, security cameras, a fully equipped kitchen, new doors instead of used ones, a fully equipped science lab with new equipment, electronic equipment for the media room and new lockers.

Even with the additional money, Vaughn said, the total cost to the town of $5.3 million is less than the $6.8 million (including interest) it was projected to cost in 2010, before state aid was approved.

It was also mentioned that, after the August 2010 vote, the size of the school was increased by about 7,000 square feet, which included a larger gym and larger classrooms. But at the time, no additional money was requested.

The larger school will better serve students and the community at large, the School Board said.

Vaughn said the school will open for students at the start of the 2013-14 school year.

The proposed general fund budget is up 4.7 percent or $132,000 but the amount to be raised by taxes is up 44 percent or $629,000 because of lower non-tax revenues. For the current year, $193,000 was used from the fund balance to offset the tax increase, but next year that figure falls to $30,000. Most of the budget increase is in special education, up 27 percent, and debt service, up 235 percent.

Yesterday’s votes are projected to add $4.79 to the school tax rate, adding $958 in taxes on a home assessed at $200,000.

Turnout yesterday at the three-hour meeting was 191 of the town’s 1,011 registered voters, or about 19 percent.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at ogrady56@yahoo.com.