Bellows Falls Union High School

The Bellows Falls Union High School Board has put off a final decision on whether to spend up to $3.3 million for a revamped ventilation and additions to its air conditioning system.

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WESTMINSTER — The Windham Northeast Supervisory Union will conduct an evaluation and review of a recommendation to use up to $5 million of its federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds to build a new office for the superintendent of schools and the region’s early education programs.

In a meeting not without disagreement Wednesday night, the supervisory union board didn’t act on a recommendation from Superintendent Andy Haas to select and hire an architectural firm, which would come up with plans for such a building. Haas received three bids on a plan from two Vermont firms and one from Massachusetts, which was the low bidder.

The supervisory union agreed that it needed to do more homework before making that commitment.

The district’s ESSER Committee, which is made up of two school directors, teachers, administrators and parents, had recommended a new joint building, with one potential site being next to the Bellows Falls Union High School.

But instead, the school board will also evaluate the district’s existing school buildings and see if putting both or either of those offices in existing buildings makes more sense. A new building at the high school will also be considered.

Westminster School Director Molly Banik, who is chairwoman of the Bellows Falls Union High School Board, is chair of both the high school’s buildings and grounds committee, as well as the supervisory union.

Banik pledged that the buildings and grounds committees would do a “walk through” of all the different school buildings next month to see if there is available and suitable space. She said she is also concerned about the cost and impact on taxes.

Banik and others said they would evaluate whether creating new space for the superintendent’s office and early education programs made sense and whether the two would be better separate.

School Director Jason Terry of Rockingham, who is a member of the BFUHS board, spoke to the supervisory board as a “private citizen” and said such a construction project should be voted on by the school district towns, since it is a long-term financial commitment. Under the preliminary plan, construction would be paid for out of the federal ESSER funds.

Terry — and others — pointed out there is “plenty of space” in at least two Rockingham schools, which are both in Bellows Falls, the Bellows Falls Middle School and Central Elementary School.

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Rockingham is only one of the four towns that are part of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, which also includes Westminster, Grafton and Athens, but it is the largest and pays the most toward running the union district.

WNESU Chairman Jack Bryar of Grafton said after the meeting that the project would be thoroughly vetted and reviewed. He noted that both the supervisory union, and the high school board, would have to approve any plan to put a new building on the high school campus.

Another BFUHS school director, David Clark of Westminster, said he feels choosing the BFUHS location would be unfair to the younger students in Grafton and Athens. And Clark said that when he tried to go to the WNESU’s website to do research in the minutes of various board meetings, he found that minutes hadn’t been posted for months, in some cases, since back in March. Clark said that is a clear violation of the state’s Open Meeting laws.

Clark said he is a proponent of early education, but that additional research into the plan needs to be done.

Bryar said that a new superintendent and administration’s office is being looked at because of the relatively high cost of the existing office in Westminster Station (roughly $45,000 a year) and the fact that the administration needs more space.

Others have said that an early education center needs to be built with the younger, smaller students in mind, and not use space designed for older and bigger students.

Bryar said the early education center would house programs from daycare to Pre-K, and thus would be a combination of private-funding (daycare) and public funding for the public Pre-K programs.

“It has to make sense,” said Bryar, saying that a business plan would evaluate that, and determine whether increasing the availability to day care would serve the needs of parents. He said the business plan would be written by the administration, with help from a consultant.

Bryar said in addition to the early education center, the new administrative building, and a proposal to add more nature-based education programs — all using ESSER funds — would all be evaluated.

Haas told the board that the state Agency of Education has given conceptual approval to using the ESSER funds for the early education center and new superintendent’s office. But Bryar said the supervisory union earlier tapped the COVID-19-era school funding to move the superintendent’s office from the old St. Charles building on Cherry Hill to its current location. Whether the state would approve another round of funding remains to be seen, he said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.