Paving bond at Bellows Falls Union High School hits town snafu

The entrance to Bellows Falls Union High School.

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WESTMINSTER — Voters in the Bellows Falls Union High School District will have some key decisions to make at Town Meeting in March — a $7.6 million budget, which is up 4.94 percent, as well as two $2 million bond issues for a new roof and driveway at the school.

There was little discussion about the budget at the full board meeting Tuesday night; earlier in the day the budget committee had reviewed several points in the budget.

BFUHS Chairwoman Molly Banik said the increase was acceptable in today's economic times.

"I don't think that's bad at all," she said, citing inflation and other cost increases.

But the board had plenty to discuss about asking voters for two, $2 million bond issues for two big repair jobs at the 50-year-old high school: a new roof and a rebuilt driveway to serve the school.

Banik said the committee decided not to put both issues in one bond vote.

"I'm not going to tell you it's not a lot of money. It's a lot of money," said Banik.

The new driveway is ineligible for federal COVID pandemic schools funding, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, according to Superintendent Andrew Haas.

While the roof project is eligible for ESSER funding, the board decided to seek a bond issue to pay it, as well as the driveway, and keep the district's ESSER funds for other needed projects.

The driveway was originally approved by voters in Westminster, Athens and Grafton back in 2019, but because of a snafu by the town of Rockingham, the issue never appeared on the town warning and was never voted on, effectively killing the project.

And since the 2019 vote, the price of the project has close to doubled, said Banik, who said she supported having a new driveway but wanted the voters to decide.

Finance Director James Vezina said "roofs are critical."

Last year, some school directors in the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union toured the six school buildings in the district and came away upset with the conditions of the high school.

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BFUHS School Director Jason Terry of Rockingham said that he didn't mind spending the money to improve the school, as long as there was some kind of return.

The school, he said, was in "desperate need" of repairs and modernization.

But Terry said he wanted to hold off on making major investments until the school district finds out from the state that the school is not contaminated with PCBs, as was the Burlington High School, which is on the verge of being torn down due to contamination.

Superintendent Andrew Haas said the testing was due to take place between January and March.

"By the time we vote?" Terry asked.

"Maybe," said Haas.

"If something is wrong, we just don't do it," said Banik.

Banik said if the school does come back positive for PCBs, the school will reevaluate the situation, even with positive bond votes.

The school is also in the planning process of a heating and ventilation and air conditioning upgrade, although those costs are higher than originally anticipated.

BFUHS School Director Priscilla Lambert of Rockingham spoke against seeking approval for the bond issues at this time, saying the district should not go into debt to pay for the projects and instead should use ESSER funds or the school's reserve funds.

She said she "might" support the bonds in a year, after the school used its ESSER funds.

Director David Clark of Westminster said he was in favor of letting the voters decide whether to put money into the driveway, which he said "is an effective traffic calming device" for the school's young drivers.

Voting on the budget, and the two bond issues, will be by Australian ballot in each of the four towns in the union district on Town Meeting.

Contact Susan Smallheer at