Mountain School turned down on building purchase

WINHALL - After minimal discussion, residents voted down an article that would have allowed the Mountain School at Winhall to purchase the building they are in for $700,000.

Approximately two-thirds of the more than 200 people in attendance voted against the article - defeating it by a vote of 122-78 with one of the paper ballots being left blank.

A second warned article asking voters whether or not the town should give the land The Mountain School sits on to the school was also defeated by a voice vote.

"I do respect voters decisions. That's how Vermont works. That's how Town Meetings work," said President of The Mountain School at Winhall Board of Trustees Chuck Scranton. "To say I'm disappointed would be an understatement. I am very disappointed; borderline shocked. And I think it's a short-sighted decision."

Scranton continued to say that if the school had been allowed to purchase the building and "control their own destiny" it would have only made Winhall a more attractive community for people to live in and increased property values.

The Mountain School had planned to make a presentation prior to the vote, but were denied the opportunity - something Scranton and School Headmaster Daren Houck felt impacted the vote.

"Two-thirds of the people in the room were not here last week (at the informational meeting) [and] didn't get a chance to hear from The Mountain School what its rationale was and its vision," Scranton said in a conversation following the vote. "And then being told by the Select Board and the School Board jointly that we're not allowed to present tonight was very disappointing."

Despite the outcome of the vote Scranton made it clear that they had not abandoned the concept of owning the facility.

"This is so important to this school and its future that we owe it to the kids of Winhall to come back and knock on this door again," Scranton said. "When that happens we don't know, but ownership of our facility is vital to this school, or any school for that matter."

What seemed to be a sticking point for residents both at the vote on Tuesday and the informational meeting last week was the sale price of the building. Prior to the vote, one resident stated that the school was valued at $1.2 million on the town's Grand List. While that may be the case, Scranton said the statement and the questions surrounding it were irrelevant as the school does not pay municipal taxes.

"Bill Schwartz, who's a selectman last week he said it's just a random number it doesn't mean anything," said Houck, the school's headmaster. "It was just assigned to the school and you might have to look at when that number was assigned. Was it five years ago? Real estate was different five years ago."

Two appraisals had been done - one valuing the school at $688,000 and another which appraised the school at $725,000. Given the two appraisals, The Mountain School made an offer of $700,000 to purchase the building.

"There were two qualified, certified, independent appraisers that said this is what the property and land was worth," said Houck. "We made an offer based on the fair market value of the building. This school was founded on academic excellence and social equity in a fiscally responsible manner. It would be fiscally irresponsible for the board to make an offer on a piece of land that isn't worth more than what they offered."

If The Mountain School were to make another offer on the building in the future, Scranton said it would be guided by another independent appraisal. Although the board still has to meet, Scranton said the next logical step would be for the school to sign a short term lease that would give them time to consider what their next step will be.

Having the vote shot down is a blow to The Mountain School in more ways than one as the new lease - which has not yet been finalized - would make it more expensive to operate the school.

In fact, Houck and Scranton said the annual costs associated with financing the building would have been cheaper than the new lease. "I believe we were estimating anywhere from a $25,000 to $50,000 increase over what it would be if we were able to purchase the building at the rate we got," said Houck. "We would have to lease the building and still pay for our own custodian and everything. It's not a lease where heat and electricity are included. So, we have those costs no matter what. The purchase of the building at a 3.25 percent is much lower than it would be to lease." The new lease charges the school - which is about 13,000 square feet - a certain amount of money per square foot and requires them to take over all maintenance and custodial responsibilities.

The Mountain School's current lease - which was for 10 years and included a three-year option - is up this year.

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