Unity Voters Pass School Bond
Ron Bauer, executive vice-president of Trumbull-Nelson Construction Company, speaks during the Unity, N.H., school meeting at the Claremont Opera House in Claremont, N.H. on March 22, 2014. "There are some mistakes in the construction (of the school). There's no doubt about it," said Bauer, who assured wary residents of his company's ability to finish the school by citing its nearly hundred years in business and its successful completion of other local schools. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Ballot clerk Gata Hudson helps tally the final vote on the bond to complete a new elementary school in Unity, N.H., during the Unity school meeting at the Claremont Opera House in Claremont, N.H., on March 22, 2014. Voters approved $2,750,000 to complete the school. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Claremont — Unity students in grades K-8 should be in their new school by September after voters at the annual school meeting Saturday passed a $2.75 million bond to complete construction.
With 75 percent of those present voting yes, the 276-90 approval was more than enough to meet the required 66 percent majority for passage.
Voters also passed the $3.6 million budget, 143-31, and by voice vote, a petition article to increase the number of School Board members from three to five beginning in 2015.
Article 5, allowing the school district to retain a portion of the any surplus at the end of the budget year for emergency purposes was approved 64-40, but an article to create a study committee to consider having Unity join another SAU or form its own, failed by voice vote.
The bond vote came after two hours of passionate discussion and debate by both supporters and opponents of the bond.
Though all seemed to agree the project has been a nightmare for the town, most felt the bond was the best and least-expensive option for taxpayers. The school district said if the bond were defeated and the school not finished, the cost to send students to other districts, plus other expenses, would add more than $7 to the school tax rate. However, finishing the school would increase the rate only 89 cents (including the budget) the first year.
“Yes is $18.90 (tax rate). No is $25.10,” said outgoing School Board Chairman Shawn Randall.
Additionally, if the bond were rejected and another use not found for the unfinished school, it would have to be torn down, voters were told Saturday.
“Who in their right mind would vote no and have the school torn down and taxes go up?” said resident Joe Jennings. “You have to vote yes.”
Chris Stupka agreed.
“We have been misinformed from the beginning, but it would be foolish not to forge forward,” Stupka said.
Many others shared those opinions, but another group said it will be less expensive in the long run not to have the school and criticized the school district for not providing more details on other options.
“I’m offering a choice,” said Linda Flanders, who gave a list of options to tuition students to other school districts. “I want to know why you haven’t offered us taxpayers options to consider.”
Flanders said the building was not what residents voted for, and they had no say in increasing the size. Other uses could be found for the building with enough research, she said.
Resident Sarah Finney shared some numbers she said she developed with the help of a “certain financial wizard” — whom she did not identify — that she said showed the school district was overstating the cost of a no vote. Finney reworked figures provided by the school district that compared total cost each of the next four years depending on the outcome of the vote. According to Finney, a yes vote would in the end cost $11 million, but after four years, if the bond were rejected, the district would spend about $900,000 less in education.
“If you vote in the other direction (no), there is significant savings in the long run,” she said.
Resident Adam Boardman offered voters a simpler view of the cost to residents with passage of the bond: A no vote would mean the loss of $2.1 million in state aid on the original $4.7 million bond approved in August 2010; a yes vote, Boardman said, adds $2.75 million.
“So for about $600,000 we can finish the school or throw it away,” he said. If the bond is rejected, Boardman predicted the town wouldn’t get $500,000 if it tried to sell the partially finished school, which has cost about $5 million so far.
Another opponent, Deb Leahy, reminded the board that when voters approved $4.7 million and the $750,000 more, each time they were told it would not cost “a penny more,” and they were being told the same thing Saturday. “Why should we trust you now?” Leahy asked.
Resident Larry Wiggins grilled the board on how the school, which was supposed to be completed last September, went from 31,000 square feet to 36,000 and the cost from $4.7 million to nearly $9 million (with the new bond).
He said he was present when the board voted on what it said was a “final plan.”
“Suddenly it is much larger and different building,” Wiggins said. “There were a lot of changes we were not aware of, nor do we know how they occurred.”
Most of the larger footprint was to make the gym full size and add a media room, the cost of which was donated.
There was no shortage of comments from both sides expressing anger, frustration and disappointment that the town found itself in this predicament.
Board member Prudence McCormick said the board, and the entire town, mistakenly bought into the presentation by architect Scott Vaughn, who was also the construction manager until earlier this year, on the size and cost of the school.
“We all drank that Kool-Aid,” McCormick said. “We wanted to believe he could build a school for $4.7 million. We realized too late in the game this is not going to work for us.”
Wiggins took issue with McCormick’s comment. He said he offered his construction management experience to the board.
“You want to tell me I drank the Kool-Aid? I don’t think so,” Wiggins said.
Some said the issue should be about the children, not money.
“The cost is what happens to the children,” said April Franklin. “They will be ripped from their school, ripped from their friends and ripped from their teachers. Keeping them here is the most important thing.”
Ron Bauer, a co-owner of Trumbull-Nelson, the company hired as a construction manager in January, gave a presentation on the building’s current status.
While there are some things that need to be fixed, Bauer said, they are minor, and overall it is a sound structure.
“You have an extremely tight building there. Everything is well-made.”
He also said everything, including the steel work and concrete, has been inspected and meets current code.
Bauer estimated the school is between 60 percent and 66 percent done, and Trumbull-Nelson has guaranteed the students, who attended school in Claremont this year, that they will be back in Unity for the start of school in late August.
Resident Joe Warner, who has attended most School Board meetings on the school, said anger is the wrong emotion on which to base a vote.
“I’m angry and frustrated,” Warner said. “But a no vote is based in anger, not rational analysis of the numbers and the outcome. I’m going to hold my nose and vote yes.”
On article 6, there was support for a larger board to handle the work, but leaving the SAU was something most felt was a bad idea. Newly elected board member Craig Shute said he presented the article because he said the SAU let the town down with its handling of the new school project.
“The finances were not watched,” he said.
Most said the SAU provides invaluable services that Unity could not afford on its own, and resident Stan Woodman said one incident should not bring about such drastic change.
“I am totally against this,” he said.
The meeting, which started 40 minutes late at the Claremont Opera House so everyone could sign in and get a voter card, lasted about five hours.
Turnout was about 37 percent of the town’s 1,000 registered voters.
Patrick O’Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.