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Future of former Wilmington High School takes shape

School Board expects to select a development proposal July 1

WILMINGTON—The former Wilmington High School may have a new owner before autumn.

The Wilmington School Board plans to select the building’s potential new owner July 1, pending voters’ authorization, School Board member Phil Taylor told an audience during the board’s informational meeting May 31.

According to Taylor, the board seeks to transfer the building to a private owner vetted through a request for proposals (RFP) process. The RFP deadline is June 27.

The School Board will speak about the sale and potential new owner at a public meeting July 7, and voters can cast their ballots on whether to authorize the sale on July 14.

At least one private developer has contacted the board to express interest in purchasing the building.

Taylor explained taxpayers must authorize the transfer because the former high school is a taxpayer-funded asset.

Wilmington and Whitingham abandoned the high school building a few years ago after the towns merged into the Twin Valley school district.

Before the merger, Wilmington hosted an elementary and high school building. Whitingham’s school hosted grades K-12. After the merger, Wilmington continued to use its elementary school building and Whitingham converted to educating middle and high school students.

The decision to sell the building comes after two years of the Wilmington School Board trying to develop a public or nonprofit option.

“The School Board must divest itself of the building as soon as possible,” Taylor said.

Maintaining focus

School boards must focus on education, Taylor said, adding that managing and trying to redevelop the high school is pulling the board’s focus from its mission.

“We are being drained by this building, the school board is — financially,” he said. “The [board’s energy] really is being consumed by this as well.”

The School Board is not in the real-estate development business, Tyler continued. At the same time, he said, the board has no intention of selling the old school for a token sum to someone who then does nothing with it.

Taylor said the board wants this building to work for downtown.

Taylor reminded the audience, however, that maintaining the building increases education taxes.

“It’s not sustainable right now,” he said. “It’s putting a hole in our budget.”

The state doesn’t distinguish between what a school district spends on education versus what it spends on building maintenance, he said.

So if the district spends the $80,000 budgeted for maintenance of the old high school, and that tips the district above the per-pupil spending allotment prescribed by the state, he said, then the district is penalized with higher taxes. Last year, spending on the building exceeded the $80,000 budget, largely due to fuel costs.

“This building is really the School Board’s responsibility,” he said, “and it’s really our responsibility to hand it off to some owner in a way that is responsibile.”

Taylor acknowledged that for many in Wilmington, the high school held as much emotional meaning as it did financial meaning.

“If we basically sell it, we lose control over it,” he said.

Not an easy deal

A basic condition of the sale is keeping the school playing fields and fair buildings exclusively for town and school use, Taylor said.

The board wants baseball and boys’ and girls’ soccer to continue to be played in Wilmington.

“It was a big thing for us to build this one community from these two towns,” Taylor said, alluding to the long process of turning two former school districts into the single Twin Valley district.

Technically, the new owner will also own the playing fields, he said. But there’s an easement in the deed that provides the town access, which Taylor said is an easier option than going through Act 250, the state’s land use law.

The board intends to keep the high school’s existing gym for school and residents’ use, Taylor said. The board also seeks to include space for a community center.

“I say it’s not a certainty because we’re not certain of what offers we’re going to get,” he said.

Conversations around creating a community center started early in discussions about what would happen with the high school building, Taylor said, noting that, approximately 10 years ago, two residents developed the community-center concept but couldn’t find an appropriate site in town. When the high school building became available, he said, some thought it would make a good space for the center.

Since then, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center’s Deerfield Valley Campus health center and the senior program, The Gathering Place, have sought new property and considered leasing space in the old high school, he said.

This collaboration could provide a “synergistic co-location of a bunch of different services,” Taylor added.

Checking it out

According to Taylor, two studies have evaluated the property.

Middlebury-based Bread Loaf Corporation conducted the first study at the behest of the Old School Enrichment Center Comittee (OSECC).

The Bread Loaf study looked at the building as a for-profit enterprise based on a co-location of services, Taylor said. OSECC had wanted to develop a revenue stream and include a community center among the building’s tenants.

That study had limited scope for building improvements because the intent at the time focused on making the project financially sustainable, Taylor said.

Once completed, that study suggested the building’s financial sustainability was uncertain, he said.

For the next study, the town decided to take a look.

The town hired Brattleboro-based Stevens & Associates to look at the community-center model, and moving the town offices, including the police department, into the building.

According to Taylor, the biggest difference between the two studies is the amount of work each envisioned for the building. The Selectboard considered the building’s liabilities — what would need repairs, such as on the furnace — and included the full scope of building improvements in their study.

Projected costs were much higher as a result, Taylor said.

The Stevens & Associates’ study reviewed four alternative plans for the site. The findings showed that all the alternatives required considerable investment — more than $5 million — and hinged on the town finding long-term anchor tenants like the medical center or Gathering Place.

While not impossible, the project seemed more than the town wanted to take on, according to Bob Stevens of Stevens & Associates and Wilmington Town Manager Scott Murphy.

After the second study, the private developer contacted the School Board, Taylor said.

When the School Board spoke with members of the Selectboard, “[The Selectboard] indicated that they thought private ownership was the best option at this time,” Taylor said.

The School Board agrees.

“The School Board is really looking to get rid of the building and get it off our plates,” Taylor said. “The board wants to pursue the private ownership option.”

The building will likely sell for a “token” or small sum, he added.

The private developer who contacted the board will go through the RFP process like any other interested developer, Taylor said. He told the audience that any potential buyers would be publicly identified after the RFP deadline June 27.

Taylor added that the board isn’t required to send out an RFP to solicit other bids, but that doing so is good practice.

Selection criteria in the RFP include: evidence of a successful development history; the degree to which the candidate’s plan embraces the community center; the financial ability to fund construction; lease costs for the community center and gym; and a bid price.

The board can also sell the building outright without receiving benefits like the gym or community center in return, Taylor said.

Taylor reiterated that the board tried for two years to find a viable and sustainable use for the old school.

“We believe we can still do this with private ownership,” he said.

With a building this big and in need of repairs, Taylor said, regardless of who takes possession, a lot of time would go into building management. In the case of the School Board, managing the empty high school had turned into “mission creep.”

“Why not have a private owner take care of the property so our organizations can focus on doing what they had set out to do?” he asked the audience at the May 31 informational meeting.

Resident Mace Sebby urged Taylor to provide information on how much in taxes it would cost residents to keep the high school, noting that the community center and gym would benefit residents.

“From my perspective, the amenities in the town center cater to [visitors from] outside the community,” Sebby said.

Town Clerk and Selectboard member Susan Haughwout reminded audience members that the town had multiple needs, such as a new fire department.

“A number of things are competing for our tax dollars,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #360 (Wednesday, June 8, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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