BENNINGTON -- The Bennington District School Board passed two aspects of proposed construction on Molly Stark school unanimously, but were deeply divided on a third that would eliminate the school's stage in favor of more classroom space.
Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union CFO Rick Pembroke presented bids his office had received for the proposed three-part project.
The first two portions of the project are the result of a security analysis done by a retired state trooper, in light of recent school tragedies, said Pembroke. His first recommendation was a project to update the entrance to the building to include a receptionist to screen people entering the building. Currently, a person can enter the building and bypass the office entirely. The second recommendation was a new security camera system. He also recommended considerably more exterior lighting around the building, although that is currently on hold.
The third aspect of the proposed construction came from the school's administrators and attempts to address the school's lack of educational space. "We've got kids being instructed in the hallways. If we do this we'll still have kids being instructed in the hallways. But in the long run it's the right thing to do educationally, even though [the building] is aging," said principal Donna MacKenzie King. She said that after debated the administration determined that the need for educational space was too great to justify keeping the stage. Classes have already been meeting on the stage, but this construction would put up a wall and turn it into a permanent classroom.
Last week, the SVSU facilities committee had unanimously approved the first two measures and had a split vote on the third, reported Pembroke. For the entire project, which includes all three aspects, his office received three bids. Herrmann Construction Inc., of Manchester, said they could complete the project for $96,373, The Secor Group, LLC, of Bennington, bid $82,630, and Krause-Livingston, of Bennington, submitted a bid of $70,260. The board unanimously approved the Krause-Livingston bid.
Joel Lentzner, a Bennington resident, spoke before the board in his role as owner of the Fiddlehead at Four Corners art gallery on Main Street, saying, "I think that it's a real shame that we're taking down any of the infrastructure for the arts. I think it's throwing out the bigger picture -- the arts -- to solve a small problem."
Molly Stark Elementary is well known for its arts program, and recently put on several performances of "The Wizard of Oz." However, Mackenzie King said that for performances like that, the school had to borrow portable risers from Mount Anthony Union Middle School to extend the stage. "The stage as it as now is not conducive to the arts." she said, and that any construction would have no effect on the school's arts programs. Even so, she said, "This was not a decision that was made lightly."
Board member Paul Becker expressed concern that investing significantly in improvements to the Molly Stark School would simply be "putting good money after bad," as BSD has been discussing the need to replace the school's current building for over 10 years.
"What the taxpayers need to do," said board member Gene Rowley, "is tour these schools see the students learning in the hallways, and see that these buildings are at the end of their lifespan."
Vice chairman George Sleeman attempted to be the voice of moderation, saying, "The long-range goal should be new construction. Looking at the current situation, the situation is not right," in reference to the BSD budget and water bond that were both recently voted down by Bennington residents. "In the immediate future, say the next three or four years, we need to work with what we have," he said.
Becker disagreed. "I don't care if it's one year, five years, or 10 years -- if we don't start talking about it, it's never going to happen."
"If the board has enough interest in that space, we should at least look at [portable wall options]," said Pembroke. He suggested that an accordioning door could possibly be an option, which would allow the space to be used as a classroom full-time, but utilized as a stage when necessary. This would also, at least in theory, lower construction costs. The instructional space construction makes up $25,375 of Krause Livingston's $70,260 bid.
The BSD Board ended up being as divided on the vote as the policy committee, with three voting in favor of turning the stage into classroom space, and four voting against. The two security-related portions passed unanimously. Pembroke promised to look into portable wall options to present to the board prior to the next meeting.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB