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Barre board briefed on COVID closing

BARRE — What to do with a swelling surplus, when to launch the search for a new superintendent, and whether to restore funding for assistant coaches’ salaries were among the questions the School Board didn’t answer on a night when members discussed the pandemic-related closure of one of the district’s three schools.

Though Barre Town Middle and Elementary School was only closed for a day this week, interim Superintendent Chris Hennessey briefed board members Thursday night about the “gut-wrenching” decision he made after learning Tuesday afternoon that three members of the school community had tested positive for COVID-19.

“It was an incredibly difficult decision,” he said, acknowledging the disruption that, while necessary, had many working parents in Barre Town scrambling.

School Director Gina Akley said she was one of them and, absent protections that were in place last year, she might have been fired if she wasn’t self-employed.

“I’m expressing sympathy and solidarity to all of the parents out there,” Akley said. “It sucks, it just sucks that we have to do this but we still have to do this because the impact of not doing this is … what you saw (Wednesday).”

Most of the school’s students — including vaccinated and asymptomatic “close contacts” — returned to school Thursday morning and those who didn’t were eligible to be tested Friday and — if cleared — will be back in class on Monday.

Still, Hennessey didn’t downplay the significance of the one-day interruption or the inconvenience it created for some working families.

“Our energy is going into making sure we don’t have to close a whole school again,” he said.

Hennessey said some more “restrictive mitigation strategies” used last year might be revived, though he acknowledged a staffing shortage is a significant challenge to returning to a “pod” system” that would limit contact between staff and students in different classes and grade levels.

School Director Guy Isabelle said making sure all staff and students 12 and older are vaccinated might be a prudent move.

“That’s what we can control,” he said. “I’m not ready to make a motion to do that … but if the state is leaving it up to us, I think we need to control that.”

During a school year that is about to enter its third week, the Barre Town cases were the district’s second brush with COVID and, given a surge in cases associated with the virus’ delta variant, Hennessey predicted it wouldn’t be its last.

A singular case in a largely vaccinated eighth-grade class at Barre City Elementary and Middle School allowed for a surgical response that didn’t require closing the school.

Hennessey said that wasn’t possible in Barre Town where confirmed cases involving first-, sixth- and eighth-graders complicated contact tracing that was conducted with limited state assistance.

That was more an acknowledgment of reality than a complaint, and if there was an upside to what turned into a chaotic 24 hours it’s that school administrators got a crash course in contact tracing.

“We learned a lot this week,” he said.

Based on the exercise that was wrapped up early Wednesday afternoon, Hennessey said school officials identified nearly 200 “close contacts.” Some — including several eighth graders — are vaccinated and many, largely because of their younger ages — are not.

Though board members worried the lost day might have to be made up in June, that isn’t necessarily true. The district’s calendar includes 180 student days — five more than minimum required by state law. In some respects it is no different than a snow day and as long as more than half the school’s students attend classes for at least 175 days the board has the discretion to waive the 180-day requirement.

That isn’t true of the 190 days teachers are required to work under their contract. Barre Town school lost one of those days on Wednesday when teachers worked and students were at home.

School Director Chris Parker said the contractual wrinkle could force the state to soften its stance that days when students learn remotely won’t count toward the 175-day minimum.

“That could force the issue,” she said.

Hennessey said a change of heart would require Gov. Phil Scott to declare a state of emergency — something he doesn’t expect will happen despite a recent surge in COVID cases.

Board members again discussed, but did not decide what to do with a projected year-end surplus that has swelled from $3 million to $3.2 million since they met late last month.

Hennessey has recommended the board assign $2.4 million of the projected fund balance to the district’s capital fund and essentially use the rest as a revenue source in this year’s budget. That, board members were told, would negate the need to draw down $600,000 from the district’s tax stabilization fund as previously planned.

The size of the surplus, questions about how it might be spent and calls to hold a community forum have thus far delayed a decision.

That didn’t change Thursday night as board members wondered why they needed to rush. Barre Town resident Josh Howard renewed his call for a community forum to discuss how the money should be used, and Hennessey said he was inclined to support that idea.

“I would welcome it,” said Hennessey.

One idea for use of some of the surplus that enjoys some support in the community and on the board would involve restoring roughly $18,000 in money cut from a budget voters finally approved on the third try. Without making corresponding cuts it is unlikely the projected surplus could be used to restore the assistant coaches’ salaries.

Even if it were possible it isn’t clear there are votes on the board to fund those positions this year.

Troubled by the fact that assistant coaches in only three sports — football and boys’ and girls’ hockey — have been paid in the past, Isabelle said he would be reluctant to restore the money that was cut.

“I’m not in favor of paying some (assistant coaches) but not others,” he said.

School Director Sarah Pregent shared that view, noting the money for assistant coaches was on a long list of cuts proposed by administrators and approved by the board in order to get a twice-defeated budget passed.

However, School Director Renee Badeau argued the assistant coaches were given no notice of the proposed cut, the district had ample money to pay them and echoed the safety-based argument advanced by others in the community.

Chair Sonya Spaulding wasn’t buying it.

“We’re not suggesting we not have assistant coaches,” Spaulding said, noting other sports all rely on volunteers to fill those positions.

As was the case with the surplus, there was no motion and no decision was made.

Although board members didn’t nail down the timeline for a looming superintendent search, they agreed to take the first steps down that path when they meet later this month.

Board members discussed advertising the position next month with an eye toward making a selection by the end of the year.

Hennessey, who was promoted from co-principal of Barre City Elementary and Middle School to interim superintendent following the abrupt resignation of David Wells’ earlier this year, is now auditioning to keep the district’s top job on a permanent basis.

Hennessey will have to earn it as part of a 13-week search, some board members said should start sooner rather than later.

david.delcore @timesargus.com

Ruth Newell and her husband, visiting from Michigan, are served their first-ever maple creemees Friday from Abby Latour at the Dairy Creme in Montpelier. The soft serve destination is closing for the season on Sunday. The hours for closing weekend are 11 a.m to 9 p.m.

The Long Wait

Proposed school construction totals $59.5 million

DUXBURY — Although it’s not an election year, local voters may be asked to go to the polls this November to consider what would be the largest bond issue for school construction in the history of the Harwood Union School District.

At last week’s meeting of the Harwood Unified Union School District School Board, architects presented a breakdown of proposed construction for Harwood Union High School totaling $53 million. An expansion to Crossett Brook Middle School to accommodate merging all seventh- and eighth-graders into that facility would add another $6 million.

The construction total for the proposal would come to $59.5 million.

For the past six years, district leaders have discussed a major bond to address overdue repairs, renovations and upgrades to the high school, which was built in 1965. The school’s last expansion with some repairs was in 1998.

Work on the drawing board presented by the Burlington architectural firm Truex Cullins would address needed repairs such as replacing the roof and antiquated HVAC and plumbing systems. It would expand science labs that do not meet modern standards. Windows with meager insulation — some still originals from the 1960s — would be replaced and a key goal would be to reconstruct some interior areas of the building to add windows and light to current classrooms and workspaces that receive no natural light.

School leaders and designers have crafted plans designed to create spaces that lend themselves to learning and teaching practices in use today where students work in small groups, do presentations and spend time with hands-on projects that require space to move around. Co-Principal Meg McDonough in introducing some of the elements noted that educational practices in the 1960s consisted largely of classes with students seated in rows of desks and teachers lecturing in a “stand-and-deliver” model.

The designs also allow for classrooms in specific subject areas to be located together such as humanities and STEM offerings. Other space would be devoted to a wellness center, a dedicated area for ninth-grade classes, and more room for gatherings for various activities.

Some of the high school work would be aimed at making the building more efficient in areas like lighting, dehumidification, and insulation that would result in energy savings estimated at $45,000 annually. Shifting uses and spaces within the building as a result of the project and the merger of middle school students to Crossett Brook would also allow the district to move its central offices from leased space to the high school facility.

Other elements of the design would address safety. Facilities Manager Ray Daigle described how various small vehicles on the high school campus are stored within the school building near the cafeteria. That design would not meet modern building practices for safety. Other issues are inadequate lighting in the parking lot and around the building, he said. The site also will need work to address stormwater issues to comply with new environmental regulations.

Two big parts of the high school proposal address deficiencies in the school’s athletics and physical education facilities. Architects have designed a new second gymnasium with $5.7 million. The second gym would allow for more physical education classes, better scheduling for athletics, and facility available for community groups, school officials said.

The project also would replace the school’s gravel running track with a modern facility at a cost estimated at $2.88 million.

At Crossett Brook, the designs call for adding a new wing in the area where the faculty parking lot is now. This would be the first major construction at the school since it was built in 1996. Adding students from grades 7 and 8 from Harwood Middle School would mean about 100 more students and 15 more teaching staff to the school.

The School Board earlier this year in deciding to combine those grades at Crossett, said it would do so without the use of temporary buildings, making the expansion to accommodate the added enrollment the first step in the series of moves needed to update both buildings.

The design plans call for reconfiguring some site features such as a fire-access road around the building and some of the parking, but the site’s size can accommodate these changes, school Principal Tom Drake said.

In addition to several classrooms for the new students, a smaller office and meeting space would be included as well as a large room with amphitheater seating for 150 people. The school currently has no auditorium; its cafeteria serves that function.

The timeline to commit to a Nov. 2 vote is tight.

Given the school board’s typical summer recess, it just last week resumed regular meetings with upcoming meetings to discuss the construction project and bond scheduled for Sept. 8 and 15. In order to meet election requirements, the board would need to decide by Sept. 15 what it would present to voters on the ballot.

Should the bond vote move ahead and be successful, construction would begin at Crossett Brook in 2022 with a goal of combining the seventh and eighth grades for the 2023-24 school year. Work on the high school facility would start in 2023 with a target to be completed during the 2024-25 school year.

The School Board is looking to hear from the public in an online survey it created last week following the architect’s presentation. The survey is on the HUUSD.org website and it contains a link to the project slides that architects from the Truex Cullins and construction management firm ReArch used to outline the details.

What’s unclear is just how much construction the school board will ask voters to pay for now.

The proposal presented last week by project designers totals $59.5 million. The survey, however, suggests a scenario for doing just $36 million of work at Harwood and “minimal” classroom additions at Crossett Brook.

Questions ask the public to consider and offer feedback on various elements of the project such as the high school gym and track pieces and meeting space at the middle school. To gauge public support, it offers five bond options in $10 million increments from $40-70 million with one option being no bond at all.

The survey also explains the property tax impact on homes of three different values, which are outlined in the presentation slides. A 20-year $60 million bond, for example, that would pay for the work outlined in the presentation last week would mean an annual property tax increase of $437 for a home valued at $250,000; $611 for a $350,000 home; and $873 for a $500,000 home.

The survey was online through Sept. 7.

Restaurant manager Travis Maney pours a draft beer Friday at the Cornerstone Burger Co., in Northfield. After a lengthy closure due to COVID, the popular downtown eatery reopened their doors on Thursday. The restaurant, which specializes in burgers and pub food, is open for dinner Thursday through Saturday and will be adding more days in a few weeks. Cornerstone was recently listed among one of the top restaurants nationwide in the wake of the COVID era.

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