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Unity school voters get an offer they couldn't refuse

Sunday News Correspondent

March 23. 2013 10:07PM
The new Unity Elementary School building remains unfinished, but voters Saturday are hoping an additional $550,000 will complete the project. (MEGHAN PIERCE/Union Leader Correspondent)

CLAREMONT - There were cheers, but also boos when a bond article for additional funds to complete the long- awaited elementary school building passed at the Unity School District Annual Meeting.

"It's just a mess," one resident said after the vote.

Unity voters arrived Saturday afternoon ready to decide on a proposed $350,000 bond to complete the Unity Elementary School and ended up approving a $550,000 bond, 144-47.

The bond article needed a two-thirds vote to pass. Of the town's 1,013 registered voters, 183 turned out for the annual meeting in the Stevens High School gymnasium.

An anonymous donor offered the town $200,000 at the last minute if voters approved a $550,000 bond.

"It's clearly a gift, and I just want to make sure people had a chance to respond to it," Warner said during the ballot voting.

Speaking to voters about his proposed amendment, he said, "I think it's entirely appropriate that we're in the gymnasium because we're being asked to stretch," Warner said. "It been a long and laborious challenge to get where we are now, and this is a challenge gift."

Some voters questioned the promised donation.

"I think the offer of a gift is very kind," said resident Sarah Finney, but she asked if it could be considered "bribery at an election."

Warner said it is a common nonprofit technique.

"Donors do this all the time. Foundations do this all the time, and it's an incentive not a bribe," he said.

Other voters said the request for new funds was not right.

Voters had approved a $4.7 million bond to build the new school for Unity children in kindergarten through grades 8 at an August 2010 special meeting. State officials had ordered Unity Elementary School closed due to unresolved fire and building code violations.

The new school should have been complete and ready for students last fall.

"It's really disheartening to come into this meeting today and be asked for more money. Where does it end?" one man asked.

School Board member Shawn Randall said at least $350,000 was needed to finish the project, which has been plagued with unanticipated site work.

"I apologize, mistakes were made," Randall said.

The additional $550,000 - that would translate into $750,000 with the donation - would make for a school the town would be proud of, Randall said.

"There has been a tremendous amount of project creep, moving the goal line out," said architect Scott Vaughn.

As the project progressed, additional classrooms and science labs were added and the half-size middle school gymnasium was increased to a full-size gymnasium, Vaughn said.

When completed, the school building would be 34,000 square feet, not the originally planned 28,000 square feet, he said.

Many residents said they supported the bond article, even though they questioned the request for more funds.

"I would like to see everything to go through for this school, for these kids," said Don Peterson, but added, "This is like going into the store and not seeing a price tag on an item."

Ed Gregory warned residents that if they didn't vote for the additional funds, $6 per thousand would be added to the tax rate so that Unity children could be bused and educated out of town as opposed to the 36 cents per thousand that would be added if the $550,000 bond passed. The cost would go down during the life of the expected 20-year bond.

The proposed amendment passed by ballot vote and then the article passed.

The proposed school district budget of $3,529,482 passed, 118-44.

A vote to increase the number of school board members from three to five failed by a show of hands.

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