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Stevens High to Keep Its Old Stage

Claremont — The stage in the Stevens High School auditorium won’t be demolished.

But that announcement at Wednesday’s Stevens High School Renovation Committee meeting did not fully satisfy residents and students who were upset when they learned earlier this month that the stage was scheduled to be demolished as part of the $12.6 million high school renovation.

And while they seemed to understand the stage needs to be modified to be brought into compliance with safety codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act, they were not pleased to learn the stage incline will have to go, according to the architect, because its pitch of one-quarter inch every foot does not meet ADA code. A lift or ramp to allow handicapped individuals stage access will also have to be added.

Committee Chairman Dave Putnam said the committee has asked Banwell Architects and Trumbull-Nelson, the general contractor, to come up with a design and cost estimates to bring the stage into compliance by the end of the week.

Initially, the school district’s owner’s representative on the project, Steve Horton, said that the state Fire Marshal’s Office would require that the 1929 stage be replaced, a statement that turned out to be in error and that riled up many who wanted the distictive feature to remain.

“This subcommittee has a credibility problem,” said School Board member Brian Rapp at the renovation committee meeting, demanding to know where the information on demolishing the stage came from. “The original plans did not include removing the stage. Somewhere along the way, the plans were changed. I don’t trust what is happening to this committee. I think it is best to disband it and bring the decision back to the School Board.”

Putnam said the original plan, approved by voters last March, was conceptual and during the process staff were interviewed on what they expected from the project.

Stevens theater arts teacher Larissa Cahill and Band Director Pat Granter said they had suffered a complete loss of trust in Horton and Banwell Architect’s Ingrid Nichols.

They told the committee that they learned of the decision to replace the stage only a month ago and received a lot of “misleading and refuted information,” including no correspondence over the summer and no notification of the proposed demolition until November. Cahill, reading from a statement at the committee meeting, said Nichols and Horton both said the three area schools with flat stages love their spaces.

“All faculty members we spoke to at all of those schools are unhappy with their spaces,” Cahill said. “They are acoustically dead spaces.”

Horton had said last week that the wooden structure did not meet current fire code and the state Fire Marshal’s Office is mandating that it be demolished. The designed replacement was a three-inch-high platform instead of a new four-foot-high stage, which Banwell estimated would cost $300,000 to $400,000.

But the Fire Marshal’s Office never issued any requirement to remove the stage, and during Wednesday’s renovation committee meeting Horton read from a prepared statement apologizing for telling the committee and School Board that the stage had to go. He said his recommendation was based on assumptions from meetings on code issues.

“I regret making those statements,” Horton said.

Cahill and Granter asked that both the architect and Horton be removed from any further involvement in the renovation of the auditorium. They want to accept an offer from the commissioner of the Cultural Resources Council of New Hampshire to work with the school on restoring the stage and raise their own money through grants and donations.

“We have absolutely no trust in this plan and we have no confidence that the architect and our owner’s representative has any interest in preserving the auditorium with its rich history.” That history includes appearances by presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“Let’s not forget, U.S. Presidents have walked on that stage,” said Les St. Pierre, a member of the Stevens Alumni Association, at the committee meeting.

The board came to Horton’s defense, praising him for stepping forward and acknowledging his mistake. It did not consider removing him or Banwell from working on the auditorium renovation.

“He has worked to save the district money,” said board and committee member John Napsey. “He is a great professional and helped us in so many ways.”

Board Chairman Richard Seaman said Horton took a leadership role by admitting he was wrong and apologizing.

“Steve Horton made a decision on the stage and he came out and apologized for a bad decision and took responsibility for it,” Seaman said.

The board also did not consider disbanding the committee, though it did say communication with the public needs to be improved as progress continues and decisions are made on the project. The committee meets every Wednesday at 3 p.m. in the Sugar River Valley Technical Center.

Also Wednesday night, the board got a preliminary look at a $34 million school budget for 2014-15.

The spending plan is up about $1.5 million or 4.6 percent from this year.

Among the highlights presented by Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin are recommendations to shut down the early childhood education program and begin a program to address needs of about 20 children in kindergarten and first grade. He also recommends adding three student service coordinators for grades K-5 to give elementary school principals more time for instruction and spend less on managing. Finally, a third, third grade teacher is being proposed for Disnard Elementary School. These additions would be paid for, in part by cutting the early childhood education program and cutting the equivalent of five, full-time positions at Stevens.

“It would not impact the education at the high school,” McGoodwin said. The board will take up the budget discussion at its meeting next Wednesday evening at 6:30 at the technical center.

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