By RUSSELL JONES
BRANDON — What had been a bond proposal of $5.5 million facing voters back in November, will now be a proposal of about half that amount. Voters in the Otter Valley Unified Union district will go to the polls on March 5 to decide the fate of a $2.93 million safety, security and operations improvements bond.
The “operations improvements” wording was added after feedback showed the community felt that the previous bond, which was labeled as a safety and security bond, was not completely upfront with voters.
“I am glad that they have recognized that some of the funds they were requesting were not all for safety and security concerns,” said Dennis Reisenweaver, safety officer of the Brandon Fire Department, who had spoken out about the bond at past community forums. “The voters will have to decide if they want the improvement items included in the bond, like the three new classrooms at Neshobe and fixing the balcony at Lothrop.”
The previous $5.5 million bond was narrowly defeated during the General Election in November, 1913-1827, after which the board sought feedback from the community. In a community forum on Jan. 2, almost 30 residents expressed their displeasure with the addition of the gymnasium at Neshobe Elementary.
Consequently, for most of the month of January, the school board worked to trim the previous bond to something voters would be more apt to accept.
“It’s going to be tough to single something out and say that this isn’t security related,” board member Angela Oullette said during a January meeting about the need to cut some of the features of the previous bond, adding that “it could all be labeled as security.”
But after several months of listening to voters and discussion, the board cut out the Neshobe gymnasium and other items, bringing the total bond to almost half the cost of the previous bond.
The board also cut a connector link at the Lothrop school. The Neshobe gym would have been a high school-sized gymnasium that would have allowed for more community use and the ability to prevent access to the school from the gym. The project would have also meant the current gym/cafeteria/auditorium, dubbed a ‘gymnacafetorium’ by board chair Laurie Bertrand, would have been turned into just a cafeteria, with the new space used for the gym and space for assemblies and other school-wide gatherings.
The Lothrop connectors would have connected the school with the Town Hall building that houses the gym and cafeteria. That project would have also paved a driveway for buses around the back of the school. Incidentally, that would have also allowed access for fire trucks to the back of the school, something that is no longer an option.
If the bond passes, work will be done at all three schools. Some of the work will focus on hardening the entrances of the schools and making it more difficult for unauthorized people to access the buildings. Other smaller improvements are being consolidated into a single bid in the hopes that the schools will save money by getting bids that combine all the work together rather than piecing it out over the next several years.
The proposed construction plans include:
• At Lothrop Elementary, construction would renovate a classroom into the front office, waiting area and school nurse space. Work will also be done to renovate the balcony in the Lothrop Town Hall Building to meet safety regulations, and work will allow the space above the gym to be fully used. The project will repair the stairwell and structural supports of the balcony and will allow seating for basketball games and other events. The total cost of both projects is $194,000.
• At the Neshobe and Forestdale school buildings the board plans to construct a connection link between the two buildings to create a new front entrance with a security airlock system. This will also relocate the main office and the nurse’s office.
Due to where the connection link has to be built, several classrooms will have to be relocated to the other side of the school. The cost for this project is $2,015,000.
• At Otter Valley High School, work will be done to redesign the existing front door airlock and will add a School Resource Officer space near the front doors, which will create a secure waiting area at the main entrance.
Because the OV project will be working on the existing wall of the bathrooms, the board decided it would be an opportune time to renovate the lobby bathrooms for ADA accessibility and gender neutrality. The OV project cost is $725,000.
Brandon Selectboard member Doug Bailey spoke out at the Jan. 2 forum on how important he felt the Security Resource Officer was to schools and saying there are few people with the necessary qualifications that will work for the salary public schools can pay.
“I feel that we need a SRO at all high schools for the safety of the students,” Bailey said, adding that there are challenges ahead for the newly consolidated district board. “I think that we are seeing how difficult school renovations will be under Act 46. No taxpayer in one town wants to pay for a school that is located in another town.”
But Superintendent Collins disagrees.
“I would say that is no longer accurate, that’s the old pre-Act 46 thinking. We now have a single tax rate across the whole district so it’s an investment in all the students of the district,” Collins said of Bailey’s comments. “We are a single district now so there is a single tax rate and it is in everybody’s best interests to make sure our buildings are safe and secure.”
Collins said that the district has been working with the Brandon Police to find a SRO, adding, “It’s one piece of school safety, but we have also added a dean of students to have an extra set of eyes on students in the hallways and we work on building relationships.”
If voters approve the bond, school officials are unsure of when the work could begin. OV’s project would be the least likely to start this summer, although work would be done on the locks. The Lothrop project does have the possibility of a summer start date, while the others would probably start in the summer of 2020.
“The timing of the vote, followed by a bidding process, 60 days at a minimum, and choosing a contractor(s), their need to order what supplies and materials are needed, and the shortness of summer all make it difficult to start, and finish, construction this summer,” Collins said. “Neshobe is outside work and may be able to be done while school is in session; not so for Lothrop or OV, however.”
ANNUAL MEETING, FEB. 27
School district residents will be able to attend an information hearing on the proposed budget at 6:30 p.m. in the OVUHS auditorium at the annual meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 27. The next school board meeting for the district will take place on Feb. 20, at 6 p.m. in the OVUHS Library.