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March 22. 2014 7:33PM

Unity voters give reluctant OK to another $2.7 million for elementary school

CLAREMONT - Unity voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.75 million bond to finish the elementary school building project that has been marred by delays and increasing costs.

The annual Unity School District Meeting at the Claremont Opera House Saturday drew 366 voters who decided, 276-90, to continue the project with more funds and under a new project manager.


Voters agreed Saturday morning that the project had been mishandled from the start.

"We're all here angry today, and we're disgusted, and we are faced with another bond vote," resident Joe Warner said.


Warner said residents wanted to believe architect Scott Vaughn when he came to the school board and said he could build a new school for $4.7 million.

Despite his disgust with the process, Warner encouraged his fellow voters to approve the bond.


"I'm going to hold my nose and I'm going to vote yes, and I hope you all do, too," Warner said.

Sarah Finney said voters should say no to spending more money on the project, arguing it would be cheaper in the long run.


"I think the 1970s are gone. I'd like to have a cozy little school in town, but I think those days are gone," Finney said.

In August 2010, voters approved a $4.7 million bond to build the new school for Unity children in kindergarten through Grade 8. The vote came at a special meeting after state officials ordered Unity Elementary School closed because of fire and building code violations.


Vaughn said the new school would be completed and ready for students for the start of the 2012 school year. But when it wasn't, the state Fire Marshal's Office and Department of Education granted a one-year waiver so the old school could be used for another year.


Then in March 2011, voters approved an additional $550,000 bond to fund what Vaughn said was unanticipated site work. In July, the Fire Marshal's Office placed a stop-work order on construction, so the school building wasn't ready last fall.


The old school building had been demolished over the summer, so Claremont School District officials invited Unity students and staff to use space in Disnard Elementary School and Claremont Middle School.


In January, with the stop-work order still in place, the Unity School Board voted to replace Vaughn with the Trumbull-Nelson construction company. When asked by voters Saturday, school board members said Vaughn has received $440,000 in compensation.


The attorney for SAU 6 said a legal team is looking into whether the school district has the standing to take legal action to recover project funds.

Unity School Board member Prudence McCormack admitted the board had made mistakes.


"We all drank the Kool Aid," she said. "We wanted to believe we could build that school for $4.7 million. We all make mistakes. We didn't realize till way too late in the game."

In February, the Fire Marshal's Office granted Trumbull-Nelson permission to resume construction.


"We can't go back. Let's go forward. Let's complete this school for the town and our kids and trust Trumbull-Nelson," Tyyne Cox said.

Some voters asked how they could trust the school board and Trumbull-Nelson this time around.


Board member Shawn Randall said this time the school board has a guarantee.

Trumbull-Nelson Executive Vice President Ronald A. Bauer said he guarantees the building will be open for students Sept. 1. He also said the $2.75 million is an estimate that takes into account there may be issues with the building the company hasn't detected yet. The school district officials will see every invoice, and any unused funds will go back to the school district, he said.


"There's no smoke, no mirror. This is a transparent way of doing businesses," Bauer said. "If things go better than we expect, you'll get the money back."

Unity's school tax rate is $18.01. School board members said at the meeting that if approved, the 2014-15 school tax rate would increase to $18.90. Without the bond, the school tax rate would increase to $25.10, they said.


Had the bond been voted down, the school district would have been faced with paying tuition and transporting students to another school district to be educated. As a result, all of the school's employees would be laid off, which would cost $400,000 in unemployment costs in the first year.


Additionally, the previous $4.7 million bond approved by voters four years ago for the project would have lost its state aid, 45 percent of the $4.7 million, if construction of the school stopped.

Voter Adam Boardman said the state aid would cover most of the new bond.


While the board made mistakes, voters also erred in not being more involved with the building project, Boardman said.

"One of the first things we Unity residents did as a screw-up was we allowed the school board to make major decisions without us," he said.


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