Sharon Academy building plan boosts science, hurts yurts

  • A rendering of a proposed $3 million addition to The Sharon Academy is to replace four yurts with a new science lab, a maker space for hands-on learning, a large, science-oriented and soundproof classroom and a small classroom. (Courtesy The Sharon Academy) Courtesy The Sharon Academy

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/17/2020 9:48:27 PM
Modified: 11/17/2020 9:48:20 PM

SHARON — Since 2005, The Sharon Academy has held classes in yurts in front of its high school building. They were always meant to be a temporary solution to the need for classroom space.

Now, with the independent high school planning new construction, the yurts have to go.

“We’ve basically been told that we can’t make any improvements to the building without replacing the yurts,” Mary Newman, head of school at The Sharon Academy, said Monday.

The building plan, a decade in the making, would replace the yurts with a new 5,300-square-foot wing comprising a science lab; a maker-space for hands-on learning; a large, science-oriented and soundproof classroom; and a smaller classroom, said John Roe, president of the school’s board of trustees. The project also includes installing sprinklers in the school.

There will be a public hearing from 6:30 to 7:30 Wednesday evening about the plans as part of the school’s application for a USDA Rural Development for Community Facilities loan. If that application is successful, the school also will be able to convert an existing classroom into a kitchen, add changing rooms to its gym and make repairs to the gym roof in preparation for solar panels sometime in the future. The project also would add 23 spaces to the high school’s cramped parking lot.

If the school can secure the federal loan, the construction will cost around $3 million, Roe said, with about $1.9 million coming from the loan and $1.1 million from donations, including $300,000 from the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation and $50,000 from the Mascoma Bank Foundation.

If that loan doesn’t come through, the school will have to find another source of loan funding, most likely the Vermont Economic Development Authority, which charges a higher interest rate, since the loans are handled by banks, and sets a much shorter repayment schedule, 15 to 20 years, rather than the 35 years of the USDA program. The higher borrowing cost would slim down the construction plan.

Because it isn’t a public school, The Sharon Academy can’t bond for construction projects. However, raising the project cost through loans and donations allows the school to build without raising its tuition cost, which is paid primarily by public school districts that offer choice for high school.

Regardless of funding, the yurts exit. Two were installed in 2005, and another two thereafter. They are right in front of the school and became one of the defining features at the high school, which sits on a bluff above Route 14, north of Sharon village.

Fire marshals said that if the school was to make any improvements, they would have to include removal of the yurts, Roe said. With heightened concerns about school safety, the yurts also are not particularly secure, Roe said. The school also will derive some energy savings from not having to heat the yurts.

The project is meant to support the school’s current activities and set it up for the future.

“It’s as if we’re building the building that will support what we’ve always done,” Newman said. For example, the whole school participates in the production of a play, and students built sets in the hallways. The maker-space will give that work a proper home, Newman said.

The new classrooms are meant to be flexible spaces, adaptable to a wide range of uses, Roe said, which would allow the school to adapt in the long run.

“If there’s a theme, it’s to always be looking for the future,” and not to constrain the school’s ability to adjust to it, Roe said.

The new classrooms aren’t meant to enable the school to add students. School officials said they plan to keep the current enrollment of 120 or so at the high school and 40 at the middle school, which is at a separate site in Sharon.

Roe, a Sharon resident whose three children attended The Sharon Academy, extended his time on the school’s board to help see the building project through. He and Michael Livingston, who retired as head of school last year, have worked on the project for 10 years. Livingston, who is now principal of Tunbridge Central School, said the project “positions the school well for the future,” and could set the school up to be a STEM center for middle and high school students on the east side of Vermont.

“I will be very excited to see it come to fruition,” Livingston said Monday.

Construction is expected to start next spring, Roe said.

Several people have expressed interest in taking possession of one of the yurts once they’re taken down, Newman said. One will remain during construction as an office for the construction company.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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