Home News and Features Build a Costly New High(er) School, Consultants Advise Board

Build a Costly New High(er) School, Consultants Advise Board

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Montpelier High School under water. Image from drone footage taken July 11, 2023, from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
Saddled with an aging high school built on a floodplain, the best bet for the Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools (MRPS) district may be to build a brand-new one as soon as 2026. 

The price tag? Nearly $110 million. 

“We’re looking at an incredible cost to the community,” said vice chairperson of the MRPS Board of Directors Mia Moore of the plan that consultants presented during the board’s May 1 meeting. “I can’t even imagine where the money will come from.” 

The school district’s entire 2025 budget, recently arrived at after a long and contentious process, is under $31 million. 

But elevating a stretch of land on the current Montpelier High School (MHS) lot at the junction of Memorial Drive and Bailey Avenue, then raising a new two-story facility there, could be the best of the difficult options facing the school district; that was the conclusion of Burlington-based TruexCullins and Engineering Ventures, following months of meetings, community workshops, tours, and number-crunching. The school board hired the architecture/interior design and engineering firms, respectively, last year to generate a master plan for the district’s facilities. 

The basement of MHS flooded in last July’s flood event, requiring expensive remediation that nonetheless took place in time for students to return in fall. But stakeholders are all too aware that the next flood could occur during the school year, causing potentially catastrophic disruption.

The consultants proposed creating a plateau along Memorial Drive and constructing a new building atop it while students continue to learn in the current one. Parking and playing fields would stay where they are. 

The plateau would have space for an eventual new middle school, too, with both buildings sharing facilities such as a kitchen and cafeteria. Though less flood-menaced than the high school, Main Street Middle School’s (MSMS) century-old building is not well-suited to meet modern educational goals, the consultants found.

Jim Murphy, chairperson of the board, called the report “really excellent … As informative as it is sobering.” 

“It’s a discussion we are going to continue to have, I think, pretty robustly, because we did have a narrow miss in July,” Murphy said. “A few more inches of water at a different time of year and we’d be in a very different situation.” 

Sticker Shock

David Epstein, principal of TruexCullins, acknowledged the costs of a new school would be staggering. But given the rising price tag of construction and the scarcity of trades contractors in Vermont, delay could be even more expensive.

“The longer you wait, the more it’ll cost you,” said Epstein, who suggested bonding. 

More expenses may also loom. In addition to new construction, the consultants recommended increasing the capital budget to include percentages in line with guidelines from APPA (formerly the Association of Physical Plant Administrators). That includes setting aside 1% of current replacement value toward maintenance and operations, 2% for repairs, and 4% for capital renewal — totals that far exceed current budgetary allotments.

“They’re big numbers, and they’re scary,” acknowledged Cam Featherstonhaugh, a senior associate at TruexCullins, adding that construction costs have climbed in the pandemic era. “The numbers that you are budgeting, those were good numbers in 2019.” 

The stakes may be higher still. Lawmakers mulling a bill relating to state programs to aid school construction could decide to require districts follow APPA revenue guidelines to qualify for aid, Epstein told the board, citing H.871.

School Age

Conditions of all four schools are less than ideal, the consultants found. Among other problems, they cited subpar building envelopes of both Union Elementary School and the Main Street Middle School. Roxbury Village School was dinged for poor walkability — a guiding principle important to district members, the consultants learned during community meetings. 

The middle school’s building envelope and playground and MHS’s roof and its especially flood-prone location were also highlighted. 

All four buildings also had other important problems — none rated sufficient or even fair with regard to equipment, finishes, or floors. The lack of an auditorium was noted at the middle school, in which the library, kitchen, and cafeteria also did not rate well. 

The consultants recommended MSMS should be replaced or undergo major renovation. They suggested looking into repurposing the building for housing. 

“Obviously, there’s a dire need for housing everywhere in Vermont,” Epstein said. “That would probably attract developers for that use.”

Floodproofing? Not So Fast

Alternatives to building a new high school were discussed. One option: dry-floodproofing the current building.

If it is even feasible, that option is probably prohibitively expensive, Featherstonhaugh warned. Moreover, the work would not fit in a summer, according to Epstein.

“The thing about these gnarly renovation projects … is it’s absolutely a nightmare for the students and educators who work in the building,” Epstein said. “It’s noisy, there’s disruption, they’re having to relocate their classes. … When you do build new, you avoid that.”

Separation Anxiety

High school classes might be relocated in or around the walkable Vermont College of Fine Arts, with athletic fields remaining at their current site and students bussed between them. 

Such separation, though, had been “sort of a non-starter” with administrators, the consultants reported. 

Similarly, the former Elks Club could potentially accommodate buildings, but not fields, they said. Nor is it readily walkable from downtown. 

U-32, Too?

A merger with the Washington Central Unified Union School District would allow MHS students to attend U-32 Middle and High School. 

Based on a “quick analysis” that needs confirmation, the consultants said, U-32 could absorb Montpelier High School’s student body. It could not accommodate Main Street Middle School’s student body too, however. 

Murphy said he and superintendent Libby Bonesteel have spoken with Washington Central leaders and agreed to begin a conversation in spring. 

“If you look at the figures,” Murphy added, “a possible merger definitely has some upsides, costs being one of them.”

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