Mascoma Renovation Approved; Larger Towns Provide Margin
Mascoma Valley Regional High School junior Wesley Stenger calls out to voters turning into vote at Whitney Hall in Enfield, N.H., on March 11, 2014. With him is freshman Daniel Ladue.
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Voters, including Kelley Pringle, center, and her mother Gayl Pringle, walk past signs at the polls in Enfield, N.H., on March 11, 2014, supporting and opposed to the Mascoma Valley Regional High School renovation vote. With them is Kelley Pringle's son Jonathan. Both voted yes to fund the renovation project. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Canaan — Boosted by a strong turnout in Enfield and Canaan, Mascoma Valley voters Tuesday finally rallied enough support to approve a $21.5 million renovation of Mascoma Valley Regional High School.
In unofficial results, the measure won 63 percent support after three other attempts in recent years fell short of the 60 percent threshold required for passage.
“It went through by quite a wide margin. This is a very positive thing for the community,” Mascoma School Superintendent Patrick Andrew said shortly before midnight.
The measure had overwhelming support in Enfield, where the vote was 1,087-368, and Canaan, 765-491. The tally in Orange was 77-63, but voters outright rejected it in Grafton, 237-287, and Dorchester, 68-101.
Counting went late into the night because Enfield, the final town to report results, ran out of ballots earlier in the day and had to hand-count paper ballots.
This was the third proposal in as many years that Mascoma district voters have considered. Last year, a $21.8 million plan fell just two dozen votes short of the required 60 percent to pass. And a $23.8 million renovation bond in 2012 also failed to pass. In 2008, the five towns in the district — Enfield, Canaan, Grafton, Orange and Dorchester — also overwhelmingly rejected a $39.5 million bond issue for an entirely new high school.
The project will upgrade plumbing and electrical systems and expand the school’s footprint from 60,000 square feet to about 95,000. The extra space will house a new auditorium, new classrooms, a larger gymnasium and cafeteria, new library and reconfigure the front entrance to better handle traffic.
Long lines snaked outside of polling places amid sunny skies and daytime temperatures that reached near 50 degrees. The renovation issue has been hotly debated on listservs, letters to the editor and out in the community for months. But as voting day drew closer, the fervor approached criminal levels.
Police are investigating complaints of anti-bond signs being stolen in Enfield and also looking into an incident in which dead fish were thrown on a Canaan resident’s driveway. The homeowner had a sign opposing the renovation in her yard, and the fish had a note attached with a message suggesting “that the sign stinks,” said Canaan Police Chief Samuel Frank.
No one has been charged in any of the incidents.
“On both sides, it’s just gotten out of hand,” Enfield Police Chief Richard Crate said Tuesday evening.
Indeed, it seemed the singular issue for many voters on Tuesday.
Marylou Disbrow, 56, of Canaan, said she had come out to vote at the urging of her boyfriend’s twin children, both freshmen at Mascoma High. They had hoped that Disbrow, a 1976 Mascoma alumna, would support the renovation. She voted “no.”
“It was fine in ’76 and it’s fine now,” Disbrow said.
Enfield residents Claudette Peck, 46, and Elizabeth Rizzo, 47, stood outside the polls at Whitney Hall Auditorium holding signs that said “Every Vote Counts. Yes on #4” and “Yes on #4 4 Us,” both referring to the bond article number.
Some voters passing to the polls offered signs of support and others just stared straight ahead, avoiding eye contact, Peck said.
“I think they preferred to have this be a private matter,” she said.
Peck and Rizzo have children in the Mascoma district, but said they supported the renovation because it would benefit the entire community. Without certain upgrades, Mascoma is at risk of losing its accreditation, which could damage the ability of students to be accepted at colleges, school officials said. But Rizzo said the renovation was about more than helping kids who want to pursue higher education.
“There are plenty of people who live in this town who are volunteer firefighters, they run day cares, they are in the military and they have ‘just a high school education,’ ” Rizzo said. “They are the people we want to keep and they deserve a good education.”
Across from them stood Enfield residents David L. Stewart and Bob Cavalieri, both holding signs opposing the bond. They acknowledged that the school needed some renovations, but felt that $21.5 million was asking too much.
“Older people on fixed incomes, they cannot afford to have their taxes go up any more and that’s the people I’m standing up for,” said Stewart, 57.
Among Mascoma’s five towns, Orange stood to have the biggest tax impact from the bond. It would be 4 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value in the first year, another 67 cents in the second year and an additional $1.03 in the third year, accumulating to $1.74 per 1,000 of valuation every year over the life of the bond. Dorchester would be the least affected with a 2 cent increase in the first year, 40 cents in the second and 61 cents in the third, totaling $1.03. However, because of the way the loan package was structured, taxpayers face some uncertainty about the terms of the financing after 2035.
Cavalieri said he could support a bond that was maybe half the amount proposed, and school officials could start by cutting out the auditorium portion of the renovation.
“It’s huge money,” said Cavalieri, 55. “Millions and millions of dollars that we don’t need to spend right now.”
Those sentiments were echoed at the polls in Grafton, where previous bond votes have struggled to win much support.
Steve Kudlik, of Grafton, said the sticker shock was too much to bear.
“We could do it for a lot less,” he said. “I am more about education than I am with what the building looks like.”
Grafton resident Jeremy Olson, who identifies with the Free State Project, said that Mascoma officials simply were asking for too much money.
“It is way too expensive,” Olson said.
Olson offered an idea that he considered more palatable.
“If they had broken up the bond question I wouldn’t have necessarily opposed it,” Olson said, suggesting officials should have split the items the school “needs” into a separate article, versus what the school “wants.”
If officials had done so, he said, “I wouldn’t have taken the time to oppose it,” much like he did this time around. Olson said he started the Mascoma Valley Taxpayers Union and was behind putting out yellow signs along Route 4 in opposition of the bond.
Brewster Gove, who sits on the Grafton School Board and is the town’s representative for the board to the Mascoma district, said the group worked to whittle-down the figure the best it could.
“We did a lot of thinking with the architects,” Gove said. “We really tried to be frugal.”
Valley News staff writer Jordan Cuddemi contributed to this report.
Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.