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Mascoma Faces ‘Critical Vote’

$21.5 Million High School Project on the Ballot for a Third Time

  • (Left to right) Jeremy Batten, a sophomore, Madison Dow, a sophomore, and Katie Torrey, a freshman, work on plaster masks during their art class at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H.,  on Jan. 10, 2014. The art room, which is crowded with current projects and a ceramics kiln, does not meet current state requirements. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    (Left to right) Jeremy Batten, a sophomore, Madison Dow, a sophomore, and Katie Torrey, a freshman, work on plaster masks during their art class at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H., on Jan. 10, 2014. The art room, which is crowded with current projects and a ceramics kiln, does not meet current state requirements.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Skip Chalker, an English teacher, changes classes at the same time as his students and some other teachers, travelling with a cart of his things to an empty classroom where he can teach his next class at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H.,  on Jan. 10, 2014.<br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Skip Chalker, an English teacher, changes classes at the same time as his students and some other teachers, travelling with a cart of his things to an empty classroom where he can teach his next class at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H., on Jan. 10, 2014.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Allie Psota, a senior, shoots hoops during her gym class in the gymnasium at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H.,  on Jan. 10, 2014. Because the stage and gym share a space, students miss more than a dozen gym classes a year due to the gym being set up for plays and musicals. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Allie Psota, a senior, shoots hoops during her gym class in the gymnasium at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H., on Jan. 10, 2014. Because the stage and gym share a space, students miss more than a dozen gym classes a year due to the gym being set up for plays and musicals.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dave Shinnlinger, a wood shop teacher, wears a pin of support for the proposed renovations at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H.,  on Jan. 10, 2014. Shinnlinger is both a staff member and alumni of the high school, and noted that while renovations are costly, they will save taxpayers money in the long run, as repair costs to the school currently cost a good deal of money. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Dave Shinnlinger, a wood shop teacher, wears a pin of support for the proposed renovations at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H., on Jan. 10, 2014. Shinnlinger is both a staff member and alumni of the high school, and noted that while renovations are costly, they will save taxpayers money in the long run, as repair costs to the school currently cost a good deal of money.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • The courtyard area at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H.,  on Jan. 10, 2014. Proposed renovations include expanding science classrooms into the courtyard to allow them to meet state regulations. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    The courtyard area at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H., on Jan. 10, 2014. Proposed renovations include expanding science classrooms into the courtyard to allow them to meet state regulations.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sarah Copps, Transition and ELO Coordinator, works in her office, a former storage closet in one of the science labs at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H.,  on Jan. 10, 2014. Copps is lucky to have her own office- many teachers and staff work out of a cart that they wheel from room to room as they become available, while others share crowded spaces with other staff. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Sarah Copps, Transition and ELO Coordinator, works in her office, a former storage closet in one of the science labs at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H., on Jan. 10, 2014. Copps is lucky to have her own office- many teachers and staff work out of a cart that they wheel from room to room as they become available, while others share crowded spaces with other staff.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • (Left to right) Jeremy Batten, a sophomore, Madison Dow, a sophomore, and Katie Torrey, a freshman, work on plaster masks during their art class at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H.,  on Jan. 10, 2014. The art room, which is crowded with current projects and a ceramics kiln, does not meet current state requirements. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Skip Chalker, an English teacher, changes classes at the same time as his students and some other teachers, travelling with a cart of his things to an empty classroom where he can teach his next class at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H.,  on Jan. 10, 2014.<br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Allie Psota, a senior, shoots hoops during her gym class in the gymnasium at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H.,  on Jan. 10, 2014. Because the stage and gym share a space, students miss more than a dozen gym classes a year due to the gym being set up for plays and musicals. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Dave Shinnlinger, a wood shop teacher, wears a pin of support for the proposed renovations at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H.,  on Jan. 10, 2014. Shinnlinger is both a staff member and alumni of the high school, and noted that while renovations are costly, they will save taxpayers money in the long run, as repair costs to the school currently cost a good deal of money. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • The courtyard area at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H.,  on Jan. 10, 2014. Proposed renovations include expanding science classrooms into the courtyard to allow them to meet state regulations. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Sarah Copps, Transition and ELO Coordinator, works in her office, a former storage closet in one of the science labs at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan, N.H.,  on Jan. 10, 2014. Copps is lucky to have her own office- many teachers and staff work out of a cart that they wheel from room to room as they become available, while others share crowded spaces with other staff. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

West Canaan — After close-call defeats in 2012 and 2013, the Mascoma Valley Regional School District and supporters of the district’s plan for a $21.5 million overhaul of the 51-year-old regional high school are crossing their fingers that the third time will be the charm for reluctant taxpayers in the district’s five towns.

And while the proponents this week ramp up a months-long campaign to reach the magic number of 60 percent approval from voters in Enfield, Canaan, Grafton, Dorchester and Orange, skeptics and outright opponents continue to question the need for a major expansion in a time of declining enrollment throughout the school system.

If the sides agree on anything, the director of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which is waiting on the outcome of the March 11 vote on the bond issue before deciding whether to renew the high school’s accreditation, summed it up in five words recently.

“This is a critical vote,” the association’s Janet Allison said last week.

The district will outline the project during a public hearing on Tuesday night at 7, in the gym of Canaan Elementary School. In addition to replacing outdated plumbing and electrical systems to meet safety codes, the project calls for expanding the footprint from 60,000 square feet to about 95,000. The new space would house modernized science classrooms, a bigger wood shop sited out of earshot of the music room and other arts rooms, a bigger gymnasium, more classrooms, a bigger cafeteria, a new library, a new auditorium, and a reworked traffic system for buses and for cars dropping off and picking up students.

Even the district and its supporters acknowledge that the bond issue will raise property taxes by at least $200 for each homeowner, with exact totals depending on how many students each town sends to the high school. But they contend that the project will pay for itself down the line.

“This is perhaps the biggest thing the towns will ever do for themselves,” said Enfield resident Bob Cusick, a member of the Mascoma Advocates group that is supporting the project. “The way the community supports the schools, it affects the kids, how they learn. It gives them a positive outlook. And if the school remains in the condition it is, it’s going to be harder to attract teachers over the next few years, when the ones who are baby boomers start retiring.”

Cusick, who voted against the bond for a new school in 2008 but joined supporters of the renovation in 2013, added that the declining enrollments opponents point to would continue if the district can’t entice new families and teachers — fueling a downward spiral in property values.

“These towns have taken a beating the last few years, compared to Hanover and Lebanon,” Cusick said of property values. “If you’ve got a school system that people want to come to, the people who move in are going to pay more for their houses, and your base (of property-taxpayers) grows out.”

Canaan residents Malcolm Love and his wife Christine MacDonald, the most visible opponents of the project, remain doubtful of what Love describes as a “build-it-and-it-will-come” mentality — for the school population, and for residential and business growth that renovation advocates say would follow.

“It is not a given,” said Love, who has sparred with proponents for months on the Forum page of the Valley News. “They are betting that they can bring more people in by expanding that school. I’m willing to pay taxes for what’s needed to make the school safe, but not for expansion. That’s money we could spend on social programs for elderly people and other people in need. I’d rather address those than expand the school in an unnecessary way.”

School district Superintendent Patrick Andrew describes the work as anything but unnecessary.

“We have many long-term needs that won’t go away if we put them off again,” Andrew said last week. “The sprinkler system doesn’t meet fire codes. The traffic flow around the building — it’s most obvious at 7:45 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon — is not safe. And all the indicators about interest rates are that they’re not going to stay as low as what we’re being offered right now (an average of 3.89 percent over three years, from Mascoma Savings Bank). Plus we’ve got a good amount of community support, building costs are relatively low.

“What other time is going to be better than now?”

Supporters asked similar questions before the bond votes of the last two years. In 2012, with a 60-percent majority needed for passage, a little more than 56 percent of voters marked “yes” on their ballots. Last year, the plan fell less than 25 votes short of passage — with Enfield delivering a vote of 852-332 and Canaan a majority of 625-441, while majorities voted “no” in Grafton (307-216), Dorchester (91-49) and Orange (74-67). The district electorate did approve the purchase and installation of wood pellet boilers in 2013.

The near miss last time prompted the school district to ramp up its case for the renovation with a page on its Web site (http://www.edline.net/pages/Mascoma_Valley_RSD/High_School_Renovation_Project). And Mascoma Advocates — including teachers, former members of the district School Board, and civilians ranging from parents of students and empty-nesters to retired transplants — started planning a 2014 campaign barely three months after the 2013 recount yielded a total of “yes” votes at 59.2 percent.

“We decided we couldn’t just wait until the district started holding public hearings to get the word out,” said Dave Shinnlinger, a 1989 graduate of the high school who teaches at his alma mater. “The approach was, ‘Let’s engage the community everywhere we go: at the dump. At the store. At the holiday parties.’ We’ve been handing out applications for absentee ballots for people who might not be around or otherwise think they won’t be able to go to the polls the day of the vote.

“When we tell people the whole story — a lot of them don’t know about the deficiencies, or realize that the building is 51 years old — they’ll admit to us that they didn’t appreciate everything that’s involved.”

So far, neither the school district nor the Advocates group have won over voters such as John Franz, of Dorchester, who describes himself as “on the fence” about this year’s proposal. The former Selectboard member also wonders aloud how many voters, especially older ones on fixed incomes, will vote “yes” on a project that contains, among other amenities, an auditorium that “is a very nice thing, but … kind of frilly for this district.”

Franz added that he wishes the debate would shift more toward raising teacher salaries.

“If the money we’re talking about were to be put into anything, you need to keep good teachers and to attract talented ones once the older ones retire,” said Franz. “The money should go to them, first.

“I’m a believer that bricks and mortar do not necessarily create a good education.”

Andrew tries to remind skeptics among district residents that the New England Association of Schools and Colleges sees bricks-and-mortar — within which Mascoma teachers for years have been moving their supplies around the building in carts because they outnumber the available classrooms — as an essential part of the package.

“We’re still fully accredited, and we’re not at the 11th hour (with NEASC deadlines) yet,” Andrew said, “but we’re at 10:30.”

After the association’s committee on secondary schools visited the high school in the fall of 2013, director Janet Allison sent Principal James Collins a letter, reminding school officials of the association’s Guideline on Schools with Facilities Deficiencies:

“Schools placed on warning for facilities deficiencies are expected to develop a plan and a timeline to resolve identified deficiencies in two years and to seek and secure funding to resolve such deficiencies within five years,” Allison wrote in December. “Failure to demonstrate such proactive efforts and progress will prompt the Committee to place such schools on probation.”

“Given the fact that the school has been on warning well beyond five years, the Committee will give due and appropriate consideration to downgrading the school’s accredited status unless the project receives funding.”

Last week, Allison said the association issued its first warning in 2005. In 2008, district voters rejected a $39 million plan to build an all-new high school. Then came the renovation packages of 2012 and 2013, both falling short of 60-percent approval.

“The school has been on warning for a long time,” Allison said. “We’re now at 2014. That’s well beyond the usual amount of time before we look at the next step.”

Project supporter Cheryl Legg hopes it doesn’t come to that next step. She recalls both of her and her husband’s children leaving the Mascoma district for private school — their daughter after grade eight at Indian River School, their son after grade 10 at the high school — in part for more opportunities to play sports, and for academic offerings.

“Even while we were paying tuition, we never felt that we would not vote for the new school the first time around, or the renovations the last two times,” said Legg, a pharmacist. “We still are in support of paying taxes to support of our schools.”

In no small part because their granddaughter starts kindergarten in Canaan next fall.

“We continue to have an interest,” Legg concluded.

Those are the kinds of voters members of Mascoma Advocates are counting on to turn out at the polls on March 11 — and to encourage their friends and neighbors to vote.

“Our approach is, ‘Don’t let the weather or anything else get in the way,’ ” Shinnlinger said. “I personally know 24 people who didn’t vote last time who would have voted ‘yes.’ ”

David Corriveau can be reached at dacorriveau@gmail.com or at 603-727-3304