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School Board Rejects Bailout: Woodstock’s Union Arena Faces Uncertain Future

  • Patrick Green of Lebanon, N.H., practices a tuck jump while Van Lodostov Founder and Director Ted Lawrence, left, and Instructor Jeff Gordon spot him during a session of the Van Lodostov Family Circus Camp at the Union Arena in Woodstock, Vt., on August 14, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Patrick Green of Lebanon, N.H., practices a tuck jump while Van Lodostov Founder and Director Ted Lawrence, left, and Instructor Jeff Gordon spot him during a session of the Van Lodostov Family Circus Camp at the Union Arena in Woodstock, Vt., on August 14, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Union Arena in Woodstock, Vt., on August 14, 2013. <br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    The Union Arena in Woodstock, Vt., on August 14, 2013.

    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Patrick Green of Lebanon, N.H., practices a tuck jump while Van Lodostov Founder and Director Ted Lawrence, left, and Instructor Jeff Gordon spot him during a session of the Van Lodostov Family Circus Camp at the Union Arena in Woodstock, Vt., on August 14, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • The Union Arena in Woodstock, Vt., on August 14, 2013. <br/><br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Woodstock — The Woodstock Union School Board voted not to release $125,000 from Union Arena’s endowment fund to cover operating losses and pay off debt, rejecting a request from the arena’s Board of Directors.

Supporters said spending the money would help wipe the financial slate clean for the 10-year-old arena, which serves as an ice rink during the fall and winter and a field house during the spring and summer.

However, the Board of Trustees that oversees the endowment fund, which was established to help pay for maintenance of the arena — not operating expenses — recommended the School Board deny the request.

“Nobody in this room thinks that Union Arena hasn’t been a fabulous addition to the community,” said Rachel Binoy, who presented the endowment trustees’ recommendation to the School Board at a meeting on Wednesday night.

But taking $125,000 from the $467,000 endowment fund was simply too big a risk, she said.

“Trustees have a mandate to ensure there is never the burden of tax dollars being spent for the arena,” Binoy said. “It is the trustees recommendation that we do not accept the proposal as currently presented.”

Earlier in the meeting, Greg Camp, a spokesman for the arena’s Board of Director, told the School Board that the arena had paid off long-term debts and construction costs. But the ten year struggle to keep pace with those payments left the arena in “desperate financial straits,” he said..

More than 100 people attended the meeting, and the spirited comments before the vote suggested the crowd was mostly in support of the Board of Director’s request to draw from the endowment.

Brownsville resident Anne Michaels said that she is considering sending her children to Woodstock Union as tuition paying students.

“If there is no hockey program, my two kids will go elsewhere,” she said.

“And mine” echoed parents around the room.

Robin Zito, whose son Garrit Zito-Wood grew up playing hockey at the arena, brought a sign, supported by a hockey stick, that read “Union Arena: 2003 — Infinity.”

Henry Trimp, 8, will start third grade at Woodstock Union in the fall. He has been playing hockey at Union Arena since he was two and a half years old.

If the arena closed, “we would have to move houses,” he said.

Because the arena is owned by the school district, the School Board has the final say over how and when the fund is dispersed.

School Board Vice Chairman Roger Rivera made a motion to follow the trustees recommendation and not allow the Union Arena to have the $125,000. The motion passed four to two, with one abstention.

After the vote, School Board member John Snyder made a motion to create a subcommittee of the board to engage with the trustees and negotiate a compromise. Snyder volunteered to chair this subcommittee.

Brian Bontrager, an 18-year School Board veteran, was optimistic about a compromise.

“I think we will be able to reach a resolution that might not necessarily be perfect, but at least acceptable to all parties involved,” he said.

Ginny Eames, president of the arena’s Board of Directors, said the time for a resolution is short.

“Our need is pretty dire. I’ll be quite frank and honest with you, we need some money or probably the lights are off at the end of the month,” she said.

Eames said that the board has started to research grants to assist with operating expenses, but the effort is in the early stages.

In an interview before the meeting, Dan French, the arena’s general manager, highlighted the arena’s value to the town, noting that it’s used for school and recreational sports, as well as graduation and other community events, including blood drives, book and antique shows, and an upcoming roller derby.

Last year, he said, more than 50,000 people visited the facility.

As French spoke, children swung from a trapeze in the middle of the arena, set up for a summer circus camp.

“It’s like my firstborn child,” French said of the arena. “I just love this place.”

After Wednesday night’s meeting, French said he wasn’t surprised the request to tap into the endowment fund was rejected, but he said he still had confidence the arena could be kept open.

“It’s a big ask, and the leaders of the board and the trustees are very thoughtful people,” French said. “They care about the arena. We’ll find a way.”

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Woodstock — Walks with his daughter, Molly, sometimes remind Union Arena general manager Dan French of the Woodstock community center’s finances. Molly can keep pace with her father’s stride, but she always seems about 15 feet behind, the elder French joked recently. Over its 10-year history, Union Arena has done the same: French said the facility could operate in the …