The Milton School Board hasn’t voted yet, but its members seem to agree that a $4.6 million renovation of the high school cafeteria and locker rooms are necessary. The item, if given final approval, would head for the November ballot.
The board previously shot down proposals in January; board Chairman Doug Stout called them “too rich” and asked architects Black River Design to come back with a trimmer budget. Since then, the price tag has increased by more than $1 million.
About $300,000 of that increase is to fix the cafeteria roof; according to Business Manager Don Johnson, the roof is original to the building, built in 1969.
The board is not yet sold on plans to develop the school’s courtyard, a project included in the $4.6 million. Plans show adding plants, benches, tables and other site work, at a cost of $161,060. There was barely any discussion about this add-in until the Independent questioned the scope of the project at the board’s June 18 meeting.
Board member Reg Godin said the courtyard project would be nice but isn’t necessary – unlike the locker rooms and cafeteria, especially in light of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ April visit to reaccredit the school.
Superintendent John Barone said the locker rooms, on the building’s second floor, will be noted as out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act in NEASC’s report, due this fall.
Beyond that, the current space is lackluster, board member Eric Houghton said. Tiles are missing, cracked, mismatched and grimy.
“As a school that offers athletics, that’s what the community and other communities see,” he said at a May board meeting. “It’s disappointing.”
The locker rooms make up $1,681,450 of the proposed $4,635,000 bond. Plans show a new elevator, classroom, team room and physical education office. Designs include a mezzanine looking out to the basketball court.
The cafeteria renovation is much more expansive. The $2,789,891 includes gutting the room to its exterior walls and rearranging the food lines and dining room to include breakfast, banquette and round tables and an 18-seat banquet room. Much of the existing kitchen equipment can be used, Johnson said.
The current cafeteria has asbestos tiles, outgoing Facilities Director Lyall Smith said, and in 2007, the district discovered mold growing in one of the interior walls.
Smith figures water entered through gaps in the windowsills, blossoming blackish mold on the interior two-by-fours; he thinks where there are windows there’s mold.
That’s part of the reason Smith ranks the cafeteria as the district’s No. 1 project – even before the science labs, which were fixed first.
“The labs won out because they were curriculum,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, I want to do what’s best for education.
Because the mold is encapsulated, “I could justify we do the labs first,” he added.
But Smith thinks the time is now – especially after that heavy rain on May 29: A “ridiculous amount” of water came through the walls and puddled in front of the window where mold was discovered five years ago, Smith said. He captured it on his phone camera and showed some of the board members.
“[That] really pushed the point home that we are not in any way, shape or form doing well against the elements in that space,” Smith said.
June 18 was the first board meeting in recent years that the mold was discussed, Johnson said. He and Smith said they didn’t want to publicize the issue but weren’t trying to hide it, even though the board discussed the renovations in January and again in May.
“We don’t want people to freak out,” Smith said, saying this is nothing like the mold bloom at Milton Elementary that closed the school for weeks in 2007. “Nobody has had any health issues. There’s not any danger as long as we leave it the hell alone. I just don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”
Board member Mary Knight agreed: “I really don’t want to be part of a board that knows there’s a mold problem and chooses to ignore it,” she said.
Asked if the mold sold the board on the project – now that it’s more expensive, and cost was the original concern – Houghton said mold, asbestos and the general poor condition convinced him it was necessary.
Though board member Reg Godin was the most outspoken in May, saying the school has greater needs on which to spend $2.5 million, he was the first to speak in favor of the higher-priced project last month.
“Because there are some potential issues with health, I agree we need to look at sooner rather than later,” he said.
Board member Jim Lyons was skeptical, saying he’d rather wait a year to let the middle school merger sugar out before making more changes. He said the mold doesn’t present a danger now, so why not leave it for a year?
Board Chairman Stout changed his mind after realizing that aesthetics didn’t add to the cost: The cafeteria designs were first presented in detailed color sketches, showing fixtures that weren’t actually planned for the space.
“It’s nice to have a space that looks good, but if it looks too good, people are going to say, ‘What are you doing with my tax dollars?’”, Stout said.
Smith said the small touches, like a ceiling fixture/sound absorber painted like a sky and clouds, were really not expensive. As project manager Polly Wheeler said, “Color doesn’t cost you.”
According to data from Black River Design, mechanical fixes like heating and ventilation make up the greatest percentage of the cafeteria cost at 15.52 percent or $272,656. New windows and exterior walls that will prevent mold cost just under $160,000.
Godin suggested the district host community forums before a ballot vote. Stout agreed, saying the board, if it approves the project, will need to explain why the construction is so costly.
The board still wonders, though, if the projects will create too much debt. Johnson said the district could delay principal – but not interest – payments for five years until November 2018, when the district’s 20-year bond for the 1997 Milton Elementary expansion will be paid off.
Godin said adding the new debt would essentially switch one nearly $300,000 annual bond payment for another.
If the district instead starting paying the whole bond upfront, it would save $357,174 in interest, an estimated debt service schedule from the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank says.
Johnson said the board seemed open to the plans. Beyond the structural improvements, the cafeteria and locker rooms will be “the final piece of the puzzle” in making Milton facilities attractive to students with school choice, Smith said.
“It’s not if you build it, they’ll come. It’s if you don’t build it, they’re not gonna,” Johnson said.
And with the middle school grades moving to Herrick Ave. this fall, Milton High will have some space to fill. Whether a cafeteria and locker rooms will do the job remains to be seen.