Mascoma School District Voters Tee Up Bond Issue for 4th Time
Jordan Peck, 13, of Enfield, N.H., speaks in support of the proposed bond to renovate Mascoma Valley Regional High School during a deliberative session in West Canaan, N.H., on Feb. 1, 2014. Peck is an eighth-grader at Indian River School and said a renovated high school would benefit the students. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
At the Mascoma deliberative session in West Canaan, N.H., on Feb. 1, 2014, Kimberly Depelteau-Tracey, of Canaan, N.H., asks why there was not a contingency clause in the March school renovation ballot if it did not pass. Depelteau-Tracey wrote an amendment to that effect, which was defeated 106-6 by voters at the meeting. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
West Canaan — No substantive changes were made to the Mascoma School District warrant during a deliberative session Saturday, though a minority of people in attendance voiced strong and sometimes heated opposition to the proposed renovation of the district’s high school.
Officials are asking voters to approve a $21.5 million bond for renovations to the half-century-old building, which they say are long overdue and badly needed for Mascoma Valley Regional High School to avoid losing its educational accreditation. The ballot vote on March 11 will mark the fourth time officials have sought a new or renovated school in six years; a similar proposal last year missed the 60 percent approval threshold by fewer than 30 votes.
A proposed $23.8 million renovation failed two years ago.
The School Board has cut out $900,000 from last year’s proposal, said School Board member Wayne Morrison, of Canaan. But increases in the cost of construction have chipped those savings back to about $300,000, he said.
“The longer you wait, costs go up,” he told voters at Indian River School.
Major differences between last year’s proposal and the one on the table include reducing the size of a new auditorium from 600 seats to 500 and scaling back on auditorium equipment and new technology equipment for classrooms, Morrison said.
A major piece maintained from last year’s proposal include the installation of a sprinkler system, among other upgrades, that would bring the building up to fire and building codes, which it currently does not meet. The renovation also includes increasing some science lab classrooms, which officials say are undersized for modern learning, and creating a new traffic pattern to address safety concerns outside.
The estimated impact of the 20-year bond on the tax rate will slowly increase the first two years before leveling off in the third year, and varies among the five towns in the district. During the third year and beyond, the estimated effect on the tax rate in Dorchester, which would see the lowest impact, is $1.03 per $1,000 of assessed value, or $206 on a $200,000 home.
In Orange, where the effect would be the largest, officials project an impact of $1.74 per $1,000 of assessed value, or $348 on a $200,000 home.
The vast majority of people in attendance appeared to support the renovation. Six people voted for an amendment that was intended to provide an alternative to the bond, and 106 people voted against it. Several attendees wore purple buttons emblazoned with “60%” — the percentage of voters who must vote yes for the bond to pass, and most of the parade of residents who spoke during the nearly three-hour session urged their neighbors to get to the polls next month to pass the bond.
They included Indian River School eighth-grader Jordan Peck, who will attend the high school next year. Peck spoke to the uncertainty he could face if the school were to lose its accreditation, which officials have said is likely if the bond doesn’t pass.
“We have a lot of talent in our school,” Peck said, “and if this passes, I feel like we can all feel like we’ve done something for our community.”
Orange resident David Wilson, music director at the high school, spoke of uncontrollable temperatures, leaky ceilings, insufficient windows and a hallway that sometimes “reeks of septic.”
The amount of energy that is wasted because the building is out of date frustrates him as a taxpayer, he said, noting that people would be unlikely to send their parents to a nursing home in the condition he had described.
“We are not making this stuff up,” he said. “Please help us.”
Leading the opposition to the proposal on Saturday were Kimberly Depelteau-Tracey and Phil Smith, of Canaan, who questioned the need for a renovation, suggested the design was not forward-thinking enough, and raised fears that some residents would not be able to keep up with the increases to the tax rate.
“I can look at the salaries that everyone is getting and it accounts for a couple hot and sticky days, and a couple chilly ones,” Depelteau-Tracey said. She suggested the proposal is a building that’s going to be “outdated in 20 years” and “could have been built in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s.”
Her boyfriend, Smith, raised concerns about tax implications.
“All it’s going to do is make it unaffordable for me (to live here) … so think about the people you’re putting this tax burden on,” he said.
Smith argued that installing sprinklers or fire alarms might be reasonable, but what he characterized as a “single-use” 500-seat auditorium would not.
Officials and other attendees disputed that description, saying the auditorium would have a variety of uses, from a practice and performance space for theatrical and musical groups and classes, to a space for class and faculty meetings, to being used by other schools and community groups.
“The reality is that this is a classroom space,” said Carolann Morrison, who is married to Wayne Morrison and works at Indian River School. “It’s not a frill. … We need to stop talking about this as a frill because it’s probably a room that will get more use than most of the other rooms in the building.”
Gary Hutchins, of Enfield, a teacher in Hartford who has children in the Mascoma district, asked officials to reconsider seeking a brand-new school, as he said he was concerned about the “excessive cost” of a renovation, and “in the end you’re still going to have a 1962 building that looks pretty.”
But Superintendent Patrick Andrew and others pointed out that fewer than 40 percent of voters voted for a $39.5 million bond in 2008 for a new high school, and School Board members and other officials have been investigating and developing plans since then. The suggestion that officials could find a different acceptable plot of land and have voters pass a bond for a new building, he said, was “ludicrous,” “fictitious,” and an “effort to undermine the project.”
He also spoke to a potential impact on the tax rate if the bond is not passed and the school loses its accreditation, pointing to nearby Unity, where residents failed to approve money for renovations until the school building was eventually closed, forcing them to pay high costs to bus students out of district. That kind of situation can create an unattractive real estate market in which it’s difficult for the owner of a single-family home to sell it.
“If there’s a sure way you want your taxes to go up, don’t fix the school,” he said.
Depelteau-Tracey offered an amendment that would have advised School Board officials to use money from a capital reserve to install a new sprinkler system and make other life and safety improvements to the school if the bond were to fail on March 11, which some in the audience suggested was a moot point because there was not enough money to cover much of the upgrades and board members can spend reserve funds at their own discretion. The amendment failed, 106-6.
There was little discussion on another warrant article, in which officials are asking voters to approve a $22.8 million operating budget, up about $1 million from the current year, and to put revenue from timber harvesting at the high school site into a capital reserve fund for facilities.
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3220.
The estimated impact to the school tax rate of a proposed renovation to Mascoma Valley Regional High School for Orange residents, where the estimated tax impact is highest among the five towns in the school district, would be 4 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value in the first year, 67 cents in the second year, and $1.03 in the third year, accumulating to $1.74 per $1,000 of valuation a year through the remainder of the 20-year bond, or $348 a year on a $200,000 home. In Dorchester, where the estimated tax impact is lowest, it would accumulate over three years to $1.03 per $1,000 of assessed value, or $206 on a $200,000 home. An earlier version of this article misstated the estimated tax rate increase if the $21.5 million renovation bond were to pass.