By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — A year ago, none of the more than 200 voters at the district's deliberative session spoke in favor of a $21.5 million plan to renovate three elementary schools.
They didn't speak against it, either. But voters made their voices heard loud and clear when they defeated the plan at the polls. It was only a year after residents embraced a similar proposal to upgrade three other elementary schools.
At least a few of the 213 voters at last night's deliberative session at Salem High School expressed their support for new proposals to renovate the Fisk, Soule and Elementary schools. They backed — without amending — those two warrant articles and three others residents will vote on March 12.
"We absolutely need these renovations," resident Sherry Kilgus-Kramer told school officials. "We have inequities in our elementary schools."
While the Lancaster, Barron and North Salem schools are newly renovated, the three others need major improvements to meet safety codes, architect Chris Drobat said.
"The schools continue to deteriorate," he said.
His firm, Lavallee Bresinger Architects of Manchester, was hired by the school district for the proposed project. He outlined the proposals for voters last night. If approved, the work would begin immediately, he said.
The renovations are requested in two warrant articles. One calls for a $16.2 million bond to upgrade Fisk, Soule and Haigh while the other seeks an additional $805,237 in improvements for Haigh.
That's because the School Board has considered possibly closing Haigh in the wake of declining student enrollment. The board decided to hold off on a full $5.5 million renovation of the school.
The 20-year bond would only fund $369,682 in work at Haigh in case it closes. The $805,237 would be spent to continue maintaining it as a school.
"We believed it was in the community's best interest to offer this project in a separate article," board Vice Chairman Patricia Corbett said.
She said the board didn't want to risk not having any renovations done this year. School officials would like to renovate Woodbury School and Salem High School, but have said completing the elementary schools is the top priority.
But resident Kristine Nippert said doing minimal work at Haigh was unacceptable, especially since air quality at the school is poor. Some of the $805,237 would be used to provide a new heating and ventilation system.
"That's just not good enough," she said. "I don't want our goals to simply be to get by and not have things fall apart."
Nippert said the renovations are especially needed to provide more space at the schools, where closets and hallways are sometimes used for other purposes, including classroom space.
"Being educated in closets, hallways and stairwells doesn't cut it," she said. "It's time to bring these schools up to 21st century standards."
Selectman Stephen Campbell said he supported the $16.2 million bond but not the additional money for Haigh.
"You wouldn't spend that amount of money absolutely not knowing what (Haigh) is going to be used for," he said. "Spending that $805,000 doesn't make sense to me.
"As long as there are children being educated in Haigh School, this work needs to be done," she said. "We need to do this."
The $805,237 for Haigh is automatically defeated unless at least 60 percent of voters support the $16.2 million bond.
The other warrant articles include a proposed operating budget of $62,247, 816 — a 1.4 percent increase. If defeated, a default budget of $62,390,591 takes effect.
Another article requests $72,232 to fund a one-year, 1.25 percent pay raise for the 188 members of the Salem Educational Support Personnel Association. The union represents school aides.
There is also a citizens petition article requesting $679,000 for a multipurpose room at Soule. The article would be voided if the $16.2 million bond fails.
If all warrant articles are approved by voters, the school portion of the tax rate would increase 3 percent — or 38 cents per $1,000. It is now $12.47 per $1,000. The multipurpose room accounts for nearly half of that increase.
The deliberative session lasted approximately 90 minutes. Only a fraction of Salem's 18,960 voters attended.