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Mascoma High renovation bond will be brought before voters again

Come Town Meeting, Mascoma Valley voters will be asked to approve the same $23.8 million renovation plan that they rejected in March, but this time it could include a wood pellet plant that would knock $2 million off the cost.

In March, a $23.8 million bond to renovate the high school fell short by 96 votes. The bond won by a simple majority with 56.4 percent of the votes in favor, but it required a 60 percent majority to pass.

The bond would have paid for the addition of a new library, art room and band and choir rooms, as well as an auditorium ‑— currently, all school-wide functions are held in the gymnasium. The renovation would have increased the number of classrooms to 39 from 27 and it would have expanded the science labs.

After the bond failed in March, School Board members regrouped and decided that they would resubmit the proposed plan, without any cuts, before voters. And while the School Board and administration are hopeful that the bond will pass this time, the district knows from experience that it’s not a sure thing.

“It’ll still be a close fight to get this through,” Superintendent Patrick Andrew said.

The only change in the proposal is that a $1.6 million wood chip burning plant has been replaced with a less expensive wood pellet burning plant. The wood pellet plant proposal is likely to appear before voters as a separate warrant article because it would affect all four schools, but if it passes, it would reduce the amount of the bond by $2 million, making it a $21.8 million project.

The wood pellet plant would cost $2 million, but it would involve building a silo to hold the pellets at each of the district’s four schools. The savings in energy and oil costs is expected to result in savings of $130,000 in the upcoming operating budget.

In fact, the school board estimates that over the next 15 years, the energy cost savings is expected to pay for the project itself. In addition, once the cost of the plant is paid off, the energy savings could save the district $1.5 million a year in its operating budget, said George Caccavaro, the district’s business administrator.

Despite the cost savings, voters in the Mascoma Valley Regional School District, which includes the towns of Enfield, Canaan, Orange, Dorchester and Grafton, have a history of voting down bonds for the high school. In 2008, voters rejected a $39.5 million bond that would have funded construction of a new building.

Despite the failure of two previous bonds, the School Board contends the high school is in dire need of repair — even to the point that it’s poor physical condition is discouraging families from moving into the district.

Mascoma High was built in 1963, and the gym floor is nearly 50 years old. The boiler and heating pipes are the originals from 1963 and were installed when John F. Kennedy was president. A new roof was built in the 1980s, but it now leaks and school officials say it has reached the end of its useful life. The school doesn’t even have a sprinkler system.

“This is not some palace, this is just a solid educational setting that could provide for this community for the next 30 years,” Andrew said.

Claudette Peck, a School Board member from Enfield, said that besides the wood chip plant, there wasn’t any item in the proposal that the board felt could be cut without impinging upon students.

As a result of exit polls conducted on the day of voting , the board learned that many voters thought that the auditorium, which would seat 600, was too elaborate. But Peck said that the board did not feel that way.

In any given year when the basketball team does well and its season extends in March, cast members performing in the school musical have nowhere to rehearse while the team is practicing. When the Mascoma football team qualified for the state finals this year, the students wanted to have a school-wide assembly, but chose not to because all gym classes would have been canceled that day.

“We didn’t feel that there was a way to cut this project,” Peck said. “We would have sacrificed something greatly if we would have done that.”

The district is also expecting to fill the Town Meeting ballot with several warrant articles, and School Board member Wayne Morrison said the board is running the risk of overloading people. The board could have separate warrant articles for the renovation bond, the wood pellet plant and teacher and support staff contacts.

But the main deterrent to voters will likely be the tax impact.

Morrison, the School Board member, is currently unemployed and said he knows how people are struggling around him. Many residents interviewed at the polls in March said that they voted down the bond because they couldn’t handle a higher tax burden.

The district hasn’t prepared an estimate on the proposed tax impacts yet, but Caccavaro said he plans to have them available in the upcoming months.

“I know it’s going to be tough for some people,” Morrison said. “But what’s in the plan is what’s necessary. We’re not trying to be Hanover. But we need to at least be meeting the state standards.”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.