After years of splitting district between Westport and Elizabethtown, residents to vote on whether to create new building in Lewis
By Tim Rowland
Jay Fiegl, a science and physics teacher at Boquet Valley Central School, said it’s remarkable how many Adirondack kids have never had classic Adirondack experiences. “They’ve never climbed a mountain, never tasted maple syrup, never been on a boat on Lake Champlain,” he said.
That’s among the reasons he’s hopeful for a new, $66 million K-12 school to serve the district’s 400 students, one educators are calling “an Adirondack school in an Adirondack setting.”
Bouquet Valley is a product of a cost-saving merger of districts in Westport and Elizabethtown in the Eastern Adirondacks which, as with most schools inside the park, were losing student population.
But the new district didn’t solve the problem of old schools. Students are still divided between aging schoolhouses in Westport and Elizabethtown – in Westport, where the school was built in 1933, teachers say they teach energy efficiency in a building where the windows are open in winter because of untamable boilers, and students trip over nails working their way out of tile floors.
During a public hearing over the school proposal last week, a power problem in Westport knocked out Elizabethtown’s Wi-Fi, forcing Superintendent Josh Meyer to patch the school’s presentation into his personal cell phone hotspot.
Residents in the district will have final say on the project in a February vote.
The school would be situated on 40 acres of a 100-acre section of the Thrall Dam Park in Lewis. Plans are for Essex County‚ sorely in need of office space, to acquire the 70-year-old Elizabethtown school in exchange for the property at Thrall Dam.
“It’s a new facility in a park-like setting, with municipal water, power and internet. We’re extremely mindful of the wetlands at the site, and we’ll maintain every tree that we possibly can. It’s a beautiful environment and the layout fits quite nicely.”— Mike Harris, architect for BCA, an architectural and engineering firm serving the North Country
Fiegl said he’s heard concerns that the development infringes on parkland, but believes that misses the bigger picture, which is to expose kids to a native environment and develop a new enthusiastic constituency for the Adirondack Park.
The Thrall Dam Park includes a trail network north of the school site, where kids will be able to hike, mountain bike and trail run. Fiegl said he plans to teach them about maple sugaring and lean-to construction as well as field studies of streams, forests and wetlands.
If built, the school will follow a trend of lemonade squeezed from lemons when it comes to declining Adirondack student populations leading to school consolidation and closure in the park.
Westport and Elizabethtown merged four years ago as a way of combating fewer students and escalating costs. Pre-merger enrollment at both schools was about 470, according to the district’s website, and now stands at about 400.
Projections are that the enrollment is stabilizing, Meyer said, helped by younger families that moved to the area in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet the project also reveals the challenges tiny Adirondack communities face when dealing with state bureaucracy. Boquet Valley submitted its plans for state approval and then waited a year and a half before it received response. As time went by, escalating building-supply costs raised the sticker price from $50 million to the present $66 million
Meyer said the school system had saved and socked away $5 million from merger-related cost savings, believing it had a 10% down payment. But worse than the spike in prices was word from the state that it would not be paying 90% of the project, as was expected. Instead, under a complex formula, it determined that only 40% qualified for state help.
“The state was saying we didn’t read the fine print,” Meyer said. “We didn’t know there was any fine print.” Being small, Boquet Valley didn’t have the money to pay a team of attorneys that typically assist big districts when entering into financial negotiations with the state.
Shocked by the news, local advocates appealed to the state to reconsider and improved reimbursement to 60% – “after which they said ‘don’t ask us for anything else’ and we were shown the door,” said the district’s financial advisor Rick Timps.
Bottom line, if the school is built, district taxpayers will still save money post-consolidation – $54 on a $200,000 home – just not as much as had been hoped.
A citizen advisory committee, which considered other options, including refurbishing one or both of the existing schools, still concluded it was worth it. Some were disappointed the hamlets of Westport and Elizabethtown would lose the beating hearts of their communities, but in the end believed the new school was the only option that made sense.
Renovation would not be that much cheaper than building new, according to district estimates, and a new, state-of-the-art school would be a magnet for young people considering a move to the Adirondacks. “Young people will consider investing in the community and making this a place they want to live,” said parent Jess Buehler.
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