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Waitsfield School Board affirms decision to connect to water system

After a long discussion with a fair amount of heated debate on the merits of the entire Waitsfield municipal water project, the Waitsfield School Board voted against withdrawing from its contract to join the project.

A December 20 meeting of the school board featured some heated debate about whether the town system is of any value to the school and whether the school board would be looking out for the best interests of the school or the town by signing up for the system.

STATE STANDARDS

In 2008, the school board agreed to sign up for the municipal system. School Principal Kaiya Korb told the crowd at this week's meeting that the school's current water system failed to comply with state regulations in 2005 and that the school has been able to provide potable water via chlorination but that the contact time for chlorination does not meet state standards.

In 2006, she explained, voters approved a motion to borrow up to $50,000 to repair, replace or upgrade the current system. The current system serves the school, the General Wait House and the Waitsfield-Fayston Fire Station. At present the school does not have a full-service kitchen because it lacks the septic capacity for such a system. The septic system cannot be expanded without interfering with the water source protection area for the school's water supply.

Between 2006 and 2008, the school board reviewed various options for repairing the existing water supply, holding off on the repairs because the state was willing to let the school explore its options as long as the water remained potable in regular testing. 

REPLACING THE SYSTEM

To repair the current system will cost an estimated $34,000 and the school has $25,000 of that cost forgiven by the state. Under that scenario, the school's water would be regularly chlorinated and the school would incur an estimated $7,000 in water system maintenance and costs to save for replacing the system. Continuing to use the existing system would continue to require Korb and the school's lead facility maintainer to spend time overseeing the system.

If the school stands by its commitment to the town water system, the school will have to pay $1,500 in connection fees, on top of the $5,800 the school has already paid. Annual costs for using the town system would be an estimated $12,000, but those fees will be reduced as more users sign on to the system. 

If the school breaks its contract with the town, the school would lose the $5,800 already paid.

At this week's meeting Korb explained to the board and others present that her recommendation that the school stick with the town water project was based on several factors. She noted that the town system would provide water that was not required to be treated with chlorine. She reminded those present that declining school enrollment throughout The Valley would likely lead to the consolidation of elementary schools and said that the Waitsfield School needs to have the ability to expand the septic system to accommodate a full kitchen - something that is only possible if the current water source protection distance goes away.

USAGE FEES

Robin Morris, chair of the town's water implementation task force, answered a series of questions from the public, from Mike Kingsbury and school board member Scott Kingsbury about the proposed system. Morris also explained that the town's assessment of the school's projected water use initially came in at 23.7 ERUs (an ERU is an equivalent residential unit based on a three-bedroom house). After review the town dropped the school's number of ERUs to 14.1, which reduces the connection fees and usage fees.

Mike Kingsbury raised several questions about the cost of the Waitsfield system compared to systems in Rochester and Waterbury. He also questioned the wisdom of Waitsfield's linear system, versus the circular system that exists in Waterbury. He said that he had initially been a supporter of the municipal water project but could now no longer support the project.

Chris Pierson joined Gary Kingsbury in questioning why a property owner could not sign up, pay the connection fees and then not use the water until it was needed. Morris explained that the terms of the grants and loans the town had received required that all connected users pay for the system.

POTENTIAL CONSOLIDATION

Board chair Rob Williams brought the focus of the meeting back to the issue of what is right for the school versus the merits of the town's system, and the board closed the public comment portion of the meeting. School board members discussed the impact of joining the water project on the future of the school, with some members concurring that the school needs to keep long-range planning in mind and keep the water option available in light of potential consolidation, use of the school for more town/community events and the ability to have a full kitchen.

Board members also discussed revisiting the issue of school participation in the town water project if the town makes no progress on legal challenges facing the project by next August.

Scott Kingsbury made a motion that the school withdraw from the town project which board member Wrenn Compere seconded to allow for discussion. After discussion, Chair Williams, board member Helen Kellogg and Compere voted against the motion; Kingsbury voted for it and board member Elizabeth Cadwell abstained.

Waitsfield's $7.6 million project got underway this fall. It is funded through state and federal grants and loans. Work on the project came to a halt due to weather and also due to a legal challenge to the town's right to drill its well in the right of way on Reed Road. Last month a Vermont Superior Court judge ruled against the town, in favor of plaintiffs Jean Damon and Virginia Houston.  The town must now negotiate with those two landowners for use of the road or appeal the decision or initiate condemnation proceedings to take that section of road.

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