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Unity Board: Bond Now, or Pay Later

Unity — School officials told a boisterous standing-room only crowd in town hall Tuesday night that if voters don’t approve a $2.75 million bond to finish construction of the new elementary school, it will cost taxpayers even more to send students to another town’s schools next year while also making payments on the first two bonds for the school.

“I said in November that Unity was between a rock and a very hard place,” SAU 6 Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin told the roughly 90 residents in attendance. “Money will be spent. If you approve the bond, your taxes will increase and children of Unity will be educated here. If the bond fails, taxes will increase more, children won’t attend school and you won’t have a school in town.”

Despite that information, garnering a two-thirds majority at the polls on March 22 for passage of the bond could be a tough sell based on comments at Tuesday’s bond hearing. The tone for many was anger and frustration. Several speakers were shouted down before they could finish.

“I don’t think I can vote for $2.7 million unless I know where the money is going,” said resident Chuck Hudson.

Others grilled Ron Bauer, of Trumbull-Nelson, the construction manager hired last month to complete the school.

Bauer replaces Scott Vaughn, who is still the architect of record on the project but has been asked by the School Board to no longer attend public meetings on the project.

Unity residents wanted Bauer to provide details on the estimate and guarantees on the final price.

Bauer said several times the estimate of $2.9 million, which has already been trimmed by $100,000, is the guaranteed cost to finish the school and have it open for students by September.

“This town has heard that a couple of times and I’m getting kind of sick of it,” said resident Eric Callum.

He pressed Bauer, asking if the project goes over budget this time, will Trumbull-Nelson “finish on their own dime.”

“That’s right,” Bauer responded.

In August 2010, residents approved a $4.7 million bond for 28,000-square-foot elementary school to be built adjacent to the existing school, which was shut down by the state . State aid for the project was approved at 45 percent.

Later, the design was altered and the size of the school enlarged to nearly 35,000 square feet.

Voters subsequently approved another $550,000 in bonding and about $900,000 has been received in donations, bringing the budget to $6.1 million. Of that amount, about $500,000 remains, SAU 6 Business Manager Tim Ball said Tuesday night.

If voters pass the bond in March, the final cost for the project will be nearly $9 million.

State Rep. Skip Rollins, R-Newport, said he would do what he could in Concord to try to secure more state aid on the $2.75 million bond and could possibly have some answers before the vote.

Exploring Legal Action

Also on the minds of residents at the hearing was legal action.

“Where did the money go and how do we get it back?” asked Kent Gooding.

Matt Upton, an attorney hired by the school district to address the school construction issue, promised several times that a thorough review of the project will be undertaken and more information on the potential for legal action probably will be made public in the spring.

“We are putting together a team of litigators and are perusing the contracts,” Upton said. “We are doing a reconnaissance of what has happened, and if someone is responsible for any waste and inefficiency, we will hold them accountable.”

Several asked about Vaughn, and School Board Chairman Shawn Randall said his “decision-making and involvement in the project is at the discretion of Trumbull-Nelson.”

Upton added that Vaughn is working under his contract.

“I want to keep every resource available to keep moving the project forward,” Upton said.

Vaughn explained in a phone interview earlier this week why he has not been seen at recent meetings.

“I have been asked by the School Board not to attend and not to express any opinion on the project,” Vaughn said.

There was some support expressed for the bond Tuesday night.

“Our kids deserve to have this school finished,” said Becky Osgood. “There is no other choice.”

Officials said rejecting the bond and leaving the school unfinished and putting it up for sale, as was suggested, would be a costly, short-sighted move that would leave the town paying for the bond with no state aid and paying more to send students out of town.

“I think you would have a hard time finding a company to pay $4.7 million for a building built as a school,” Upton said.

Impact on Budget, Taxes

In a PowerPoint presentation, McGoodwin estimated that if residents vote for the bond, the cost next year will be a budget of $3.7 million and a first-year bond payment of $71,500.

He compared that to an estimated cost of $2.3 million to send the district’s 120 K-8 students to another town’s schools, plus unemployment costs for 22 employees the district will layoff, transportation and loss of state aid on the building under construction.

In the three years after that, the cost scenario would not change and it would continue to be more expensive to bus children out of town.

The town has about $2 million in expenses, mostly for special education, that it must pay regardless of the outcome of the March 22 vote.

The estimated tax rate impact on the bond for the first year is 54 cent per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

The following year it could jump to either $1.95 or $1.59 depending on how the financing is structured.

Bauer gave an update on Trumbull-Nelson’s work and said they are going through each contract with the recently-hired owner’s representative, Gordon Bristol of Brattleboro, Vt. Both Bristol and Bauer said they are combing through the details and will continue to look for savings to reduce the bond.

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