Lebanon School Board settles on $20.4 million renovation plan

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/18/2019 9:59:29 PM

LEBANON — Voters will be asked in March to approve $20.4 million in renovations to three Lebanon schools after officials voted last week to reject several cuts proposed for the improvement effort.

The School Board voted, 7-2, on Wednesday to put forward a “modernization” project that largely resembles plans narrowly rejected by residents last year.

The new plans on the March annual school meeting warrant, however, do not include a 775-seat auditorium previously pitched as an expansion to Lebanon High School. That $9.4 million project won only 40.2% support at the polls last spring.

School Board Chairwoman Wendy Hall, Vice Chairman Adam Nemeroff and board members Mary Edes, Tom Harkins, Martha DiDomenico, Jenica Nelan and Aaron Mills voted in favor of the building projects.

Board members Richard Milius and Tammy Begin voted in opposition.

“I feel good about the decision. I feel like it’s a solid decision,” Hall said on Monday.

For months, School Board members have sought input from architects, the public and school administrators to craft a plan that will increase instructional space, create new safer entryways and reduce lunchtime conflicts at Lebanon’s two elementary schools, she said.

“We went into the decision-making process well-informed, and I think we were really trying to look at and understand if there was a way to save costs and if we had to modify the plan, what would that look like and what do we gain or lose by doing that,” Hall said.

The proposal is about $400,000 more expensive than a plan rejected by city residents last March. The price increase is largely due to inflation and rising construction costs.

Residents voted, 893-713, during city elections to spend $20 million on the school building renovations.

While a 55.6% majority supported the plans, it fell short of the 60% approval needed to authorize borrowing.

Both the building renovations and the auditorium at Lebanon High were also rejected in 2018.

On Wednesday, the School Board elected to do away with cuts proposed earlier this fall by district officials and architects to placate voters.

The reductions would have brought costs down to $17.5 million.

The improvements include a new cafeteria for the Hanover Street School, remodeled kitchen at the Mount Lebanon School, and a new student center and lobby at Lebanon High. Proponents said they are needed for student’s well-being and security and are worth doing even given the impact on taxpayers.

“I didn’t take this decision lightly,” Board member Tom Harkins said in a CATV video of Wednesday’s meeting. “I recognize the impact it’s going to have on the whole city.”

The project, as approved, is expected to add 24 cents per $1,000 of a property’s assessed value to Lebanon’s school tax rate, according to Tim Ball, the school district’s business administrator.

That amounts to a tax increase of $60 a year on a property valued at $250,000.

Taxpayers could see higher costs in the second year of a bond when the tax rate is expected to increase by 93 cents over current levels, Ball said.

That year, the renovation project could cost $233 for a homeowner with a $250,000 property.

Prior to the vote on Wednesday, School Board members defeated a proposal to only bond improvements at Hanover Street School.

“All the other projects are worth doing but my premise is that just like when you’re a homeowner and you have several things that have to be done, you don’t necessarily have to do them all at once,” said Milius, who pitched the idea.

Upgrades at the other schools could be pushed back and paid for with year-end surplus funds that the school district saves, he said.

Milius also worried the $20.4 million renovation plan would overburden the school district’s debt service.

Taxpayers will be paying off the $24.9 million bond for construction of Lebanon Middle School, which opened in 2012, for 13 more years, he said.

About a half-dozen residents pushed back and spoke in favor of the full project. They warned that cost-cutting efforts are “penny wise and pound foolish.”

“I feel that the plan should stay as is. I’m getting the impression that we’re sending a message to voters who have voted against the (renovation projects) in the past that ‘We’ll take this away, we’ll take that away. It wasn’t that important to begin with’ ” said Tara Gagne, a member of the Hanover Street School PTO. “I think it’s sort of minimizing the importance of everything that’s been put into this plan.”

Completing projects in a piecemeal fashion also would increase expenses because of rising construction costs, which go up about 4% annually, according to architect Paul Marinace.

Marinace, who designed the expansion at Mascoma Valley Regional High School, estimated that upgrades at each school would cost about 10% more when broken out from the overall plans. Multiple years of construction could also wear on parents, students and teachers, he added.

“That’s not much fun for anybody at the schools,” Marinace said. “There’s contractors on-site, there’s equipment, there’s construction.”

No residents spoke in favor of the cuts, which surprised Hall.

Critics of the renovation plans were commenting and communicating with school officials in the spring and early fall, Hall said on Monday. But as the School Board got closer to decision making, those comments dropped off, she said.

“The sentiment of the board, in general, is we hope people continue to be engaged,” Hall said, adding residents should seek out information and attempt to better understand the renovation effort before a March vote.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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