The Bellows Falls Middle School (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
The Bellows Falls Middle School (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Tuesday May 10, 2011

ROCKINGHAM -- With only a week to go before Rockingham residents vote on a proposed $10.5 million renovation to the Bellows Falls Middle School, supporters and opponents are working to get their information out.

And both sides are getting into the community to make sure they have the votes when the results are counted next week.

Rockingham voters will go to the polls on Tuesday, May 17, to hold a reconsideration on the proposed renovation to the Bellows Falls Middle School, which was rejected by only four votes during the first election on March 1.

The project would completely upgrade all systems in the historic 85-year-old building.

The BFMS Renovation Committee members, who have been gathering information and public input on the middle school for three years, say they have the best proposal to modernize and save the building while providing the town's children with a safe and environmentally sound structure for decades to come.

But last week an independent report was released by a group that wants the town to take another look at the Renovation Committee's data.

The Bellows Falls Middle School Options Committee released the eight-page document which says Rockingham residents would be better served by investing in a new building.

The options committee thinks the existing middle school is too large, has no green space, and is not worth the investment, and they think a brand new, efficient facility can be constructed for about the same price.


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Now each side is trying to convince the undecided voters that they have the better plan.

The Rockingham School Board first started looking at the aging internal systems of the middle school in 2007, and in 2008, Town Meeting Day voters approved $20,000 to pay for an initial study.

Over the next few years, the board held a series of meetings and public information sessions to discuss the various options, which included building a new facility, partnering with neighboring towns or renovating the existing building.

In the middle of 2010, after receiving another $20,000 from the voters, the committee elected to renovate and began releasing estimates that ranged from $8 million to $12 million.

The $10.5 million proposal was rejected in March, and now supporters are going for another vote on the renovation

In anticipation of the vote a group of Rockingham residents came together to investigate whether it might be more cost effective to invest in a new building.

Chris Moore, the chairman of the options committee, said it is clear that something has to be done to address the heating, electrical and ventilation challenges at the middle school, but he said putting more than $10 million into the building would not be in the best interest of the town.

The options committee looked at a recently completed project in Marlborough, N.H.

Residents there put up a 49,700 square foot building for its K-8 students at a cost of about $10.9 million. Moore said the Marlborough project was used as a comparison because it is in the region, was completed recently and houses about the same number of students as BFMS.

Windham Northeast Supervisory Union Assistant Superintendent Chris Kibbe said it is not fair to compare the two projects. Kibbe said construction costs for upper grade classrooms are much higher, and the Marlborough school has only 80 middle school students, compared with the 250 at BFMS.

Kibbe also pointed out that the New Hampshire school has a multi-purpose gym, cafeteria and auditorium, compared to BFMS, which has a large auditorium and gym, and he said the new Marlborough school was not built to the high environmental standards that a renovated BFMS would demand.

Moore countered that the existing BFMS is way too large for the declining student body, and he said the Marlborough project was only used as a rough comparison as the type of building that could be built for about the same amount of money.

To further complicate the issue, the options committee spent time with staff at The MacMillin Co., which led the Marlborough project, and the Keene-based firm was forced to clarify its role after being dragged into the emotional Rockingham debate.

According to a letter from Preconstruction Manager Stephen Lajoie to Kibbe, the company met with members of the options committee but the information was "never presented as, nor intended to be, an estimate of construction costs for a new middle school in Bellows Falls."

"The potential variables in site conditions, design, program requirements and facilities such as a separate auditorium, cafeteria and/or gymnasium are too numerous to expect that the square foot costs of one project can be applied directly to another," Lajoie wrote. "It was never our intention that the numbers we provided would be used as anything more than a guideline."

Moore said he saw the MacMillin letter and he accused WNESU administrators of trying to confuse voters by moving the discussion away from the more important issues.

"It was never meant to be an apples-to-apples comparison," Moore said. "We said from the start that we only intended the Marlborough project to be a guide."

Kibbe also said the options report fails to address what it would cost to provide space for Rockingham sixth-grade students, if a new 7-8 building is constructed and he said the options committee made an error in failing to include what it would cost to purchase land, if a new building is constructed.

Moore admits that his committee failed to include funding for a land purchase in its estimates, but he said the costs would be relatively low compared to the $10 million it would cost to build.

The Rockingham school district owns some of the playing fields at the high school, and Moore said the new BFMS could be started "tomorrow" on that land, or the Rockingham district could use those fields as bargaining chips when negotiating other sites on the Bellows Falls Union High School campus.

The original renovation committee went to boards in Westminster and Athens/Grafton, as well as to the high school, with the proposal of partnering on a new middle school project.

Those plans were rejected, leading the renovation committee to assume that the boards would not support, or help, with any future proposal.

Moore said convincing the high school board to allow a new building on its property should not be a stumbling block.

Even though WNESU counsel Bob Fisher, in a letter to Kibbe, said a land swap would require a vote by the BFUHS board, Moore said there is no reason to assume the board would be opposed to a new middle school near the high school.

Moore said he was an outspoken critic of the $10.5 million bond prior to the first vote, and he wanted to make sure voters had a chance to consider all of the alternatives before a second vote is held.

He said 400 copies of the options plan were printed and he is working in the days leading up to the vote to get the information distributed.

"There are other options to look at," Moore said. "I felt obligated to get the information out there."

BFMS Renovation Committee Chairman Tim Doherty said the group is continuing to hold public information sessions and will work to convince voters that renovating the middle school makes the most sense.

Doherty has been working on the proposed project for three years and he said it is unfair for the options committee to raise the issues with only a few weeks to go before the vote.

"It seems like their main focus is just throwing things like this up in our path, and if we spend all our time dealing with it, we'll never get anywhere," Doherty said. "They are only doing this to confuse the voters. We have to stay focused, and just push this aside and go forward."

Doherty said the Renovation Committee has held countless meetings over the past three years and all of the options that are now being raised have already been debated.

The new report offers no engineer generated specifics, and is only a rough outline of the report that Doherty's committee has spent three years, and $40,000, putting together.

"If people are against this vote, that's fine, but they should base that decision on facts and not on misinformation," Doherty said. "Tearing down a beautiful building is not green, and making our kids get on a bus to have to travel farther to get to school is not green. Taking down a building to construct another one is not cost-effective. It makes no sense at all."

The town school board and the Rockingham Free Library board both elected to hold their respective bond questions during the village elections next week.

And both sides are hoping to get their supporters out to the polls Tuesday.

With no controversial ballot questions or contested races in the village elections, the school renovation project, as well as the $2.9 million Rockingham Free Library renovation, are likely to be the biggest draws for voters

If the bond vote is rejected next week, the school board will have to wait at least a year to go before the voters again for the same project, according to state elections law.

And under the law, if the bond is approved, then petitioners only have a single opportunity to ask for another reconsideration.

Rockingham residents can register to vote until 5 p.m., Wednesday, May 11, and absentee ballots are available at Town Hall until the day before the election.

The absentee ballots can be turned in right up until the polls close on Tuesday, May 17, at 7 p.m.

The polls will be open at the Masonic Temple on Westminster Street from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311ext. 279 or at hwtisman@reformer.com.