Unity Mulls New Bond For School

Residents Asked to Pay $2.75M to Finish Project

Voting for town and school officers is Tuesday, March 11, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. in town hall. Town Meeting will be held at noon on Saturday, March 15, at town hall; School meeting is 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 22 at the Claremont Opera House.

Unity — At a Feb. 25 bond hearing, Unity School officials pleaded with residents to “focus” on passing a bond to finish the K-8 elementary school, rather than potential litigation, which could be pursued later.

“I understand your frustration and your anger,” SAU 6 Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin told about 90 residents at the hearing. “But I respectively ask, let’s focus on preparing to make a decision on March 22.”

The project is months behind schedule and until recently was under a stop-work order from the state because of incomplete plans.

Despite McGoodwin telling residents it will cost more tax dollars to send students to other schools next year, the anger expressed at the hearing indicated that gaining a two-thirds majority for passage of the $2.75 million bond at the school meeting will take some persuading.

“We were led on by a guy who said he could handle this for us,” resident Jeff Thomas said at the hearing. Thomas was referring to architect Scott Vaughn, who was also the construction manager until the School Board brought in Trumbull-Nelson in January.

“I’m not going to get into that,” Vaughn said Wednesday when asked to comment on what Thomas said.

“I am still the architect of record and I will continue to be in Unity until the project is finished. I am actively working with the School Board, Gordon Bristol and Trumbull-Nelson,” he said. “The goal remains the same, to get the best possible value for Unity and we are actively working to find the most economical way to do so.”

What was originally supposed to be a 28,000-square foot building for $4.7 million in August 2010 when residents approved a bond, is now 34,000 square feet and could cost close to $9 million, with about $900,000 of that coming from donations.

Last year, voters approved an additional $750,000 for the job, of which $200,000 will come from a donation.

“Last year you came to us asking for $350,000 and walked out with $750,000, and it is still not finished,” resident John Callum told the School Board at the hearing. He laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the board for allowing the costs to get out of control.

Mark Gentes, another vocal resident who has demanded a thorough inquiry of what actually happened that caused the construction budget to skyrocket, said the school won’t be getting his vote for the bond on March 22.

“I’m voting no and I hope others do,” said Gentes on Wednesday. “I still have a lot of unanswered questions for the SAU, School Board and representatives.” At the March 22 annual school meeting, voters will be asked to pass the $2.75 million bond based on estimates from construction manager Trumbull-Nelson. The final cost could less be but it certainly won’t be more, the company said on Feb. 25.

“That’s what the last guy told us,” responded resident Tom Johnson, referring to the increases that they have been told would be enough to complete the school.

If the bond fails, school officials said it will be even more costly for the town to cover tuition payments to other school districts for next year along with other costs. Voting yes will mean spending $3.7 million next year, including the budget and bond payment, versus $4.3 million to have students attend school in another district, according to figures presented by McGoodwin.

“I don’t think those figures are accurate,” Gentes said. “How can it cost more?” According to figures provided by the SAU 6 office, if the proposed budget and bond pass, the school tax rate would increase 89 cents to $18.90 per $1,000 of assessed valuation and add $178 in school taxes on a property assessed at $200,000. If the bond is defeated and students need to be sent to other schools next fall, the tax rate would increase $7.09 to $25.10 and add $1,418 in taxes on a $200,000 property.

“This is based on the need to spend $4,329,000 to fund educational costs, as outlined at the public hearing,” said Tim Ball, the district’s finance and business director, in an email. In a later email Ball said the elementary tuition estimates of $15,000 were based on current Claremont figures.

A breakdown of the cost from Trumbull-Nelson can be viewed at the SAU 6 web site under the Unity School Board link. There is $1.4 million for subcontracting, $572,000 for labor and $536,000 for materials. Trumbull-Nelson has promised the school will be ready for students at the start of the next school year.

“We will have your children in that school next Sept. 1. You have my word,” Trumbull-Nelson’s Ron Bauer told the Feb. 25 hearing crowd.

The proposed school budget of nearly $3.7 million represents an increase of just $47,000 from the current fiscal year or about 1.3 percent. If approved as presented it would add 35 cents to the school tax rate, which includes a 5 cent increase in the state education tax. The first year bond payment to finish the school would account for the other 54 cents of the projected increase. The tax increase for the bond payment the second year would be either $1.95 or $1.54, depending on how the financing is structured.

Former School Board member Craig Shute, who has been critical of the board’s handling of the construction project, is looking to win back a seat on the board against incumbent and current chairman, Shawn Randall.

“First of all, I don’t like the fiasco we are going through,” said Shute, a retired postal worker. “When I sat on the board, I said we needed a clerk of the works for this project. Now we are in this situation and are getting an owner’s rep. That is the same thing.”

The board hired Gordon Bristol of Vermont as the owner’s representative in January.

“Taxes with the school will be ridiculous. My taxes alone on a $150,000 home will be $1,600, just to build the school.”

If elected, Shute promises to keep a better eye on all spending.

“I will bring fiscal responsibility. No questions about that,” he said.

Multiple phone calls to Randall were not returned.

Town Budget

The absence of a healthy fund balance on the town side will affect the anticipated municipal tax rate, currently at $3.95 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, if the budget and all warrant articles are approved at Town Meeting.

Though total requested appropriations, including a budget of slightly more than $1 million, are up $56,000, only $60,000 is slated to be used from the town’s fund balance versus the $300,000 used for the last fiscal year, which ended Dec. 31.

The budget has some increases for winter salt and sand and bags for the transfer station which are purchased every three years.

Among the special appropriations are $23,000 to replace furnaces in the fire station and old town hall, $32,135 for the revaluation capital reserve fund, $5,000 for the well monitoring expendable trust fund and $35,000 to finish the gazebo on the common.

Up to this point, the gazebo has been built using only volunteer labor and donations. It has the flooring and trusses but lacks a roof and stairs, among other things. Selectman Ed Gregory said a contractor quoted the board a maximum price of $35,000 to finish the work.

The board said it can’t predict the overall tax rate impact until later this year when they see if any more money will come from the fund balance.

John Callum, who has previously served on the Selectboard, county commissioner and town moderator, is running for the three-year seat on the Selectboard now held by Willard Hathaway, who is not seeking re-election.

Callum, 70, cited his interest in serving the town as his reason for running and would like to see younger people step up and become involved.

“I really don’t bring any agenda to the board,” said Callum.

His opponent, Deb Leahy, formerly Deb Bazell, could not be reached for comment.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com