LINCOLN — Tory Riley cannot stop smiling.
“I love this,” the principal of the Lincoln Community School said last week during a tour of the school. “I flip a switch, and the heating works!”
After six years of planning and $2 million in budgeted renovations, Lincoln Community School has invited the community to come through its newly finished doors this Thursday to celebrate the completion of its historic facility during is annual open house.
This year, the event — which, as always, will feature student work and performances — will double as a renovation dedication ceremony. School officials hope that, in addition to parents and grandparents, townspeople who don’t have a direct connection to the school will come see what their property taxes purchased.
The recently completed renovation covered a variety of improvements, additions and repairs. Every room had work done to it, and parts of the building were completely revamped.
The Lincoln Community School currently serves 127 elementary school students.
“This is a thriving school,” Riley said with pride. “It’s not 30 students, it’s well over 100 students. The population projection has always been to hold steady or grow, so we are a bit of an anomaly in Vermont.”
After years of work, the event will be a fine opportunity for the community to gather and celebrate the dedication and hard work that went in to completing the much-needed project.
The historic school building is set on a picturesque site, nestled between the New Haven River and East River Road. It is made all the more cheerful by hand-painted signs dotting the community vegetable garden run by first- and second-graders, who have a study unit based on their relationship with food.
Now, the school’s interior can boast of having the same attractiveness as its surroundings. The wooden clapboards and peeling paint that once adorned the building were replaced with cement board and fresh paint. Brand-new sidewalks replaced crumbling walkways, saving Riley several “heart attacks” per day.
“It used to be at the end of the day, buses pulled in and kids ran to greet their parents,” she said. “But young kids don’t necessarily know how to navigate a parking lot.”
The new sidewalks help clearly delineate where kids should and shouldn’t walk.
“I love this sidewalk,” Riley said firmly.
A tech lab with computers serves older students, and a gleaming multipurpose room serves as the gym, the art and music space, and a community gathering area. Eventually, Riley explained, if computer tablets take the place of desktop computers, the tech lab will be converted into a permanent arts space. In the meantime, the halls are lined with student artwork created in the multipurpose room. Throughout the school building, fresh paint coats each wall, and the new floors are still glossy.
In 2006, the Lincoln School Board made the decision to take a look at the site, which had a number of problems. Aside from the lack of a gym and art room, the heating and plumbing was faulty. The building was constructed in the 1950s after a fire at its predecessor. Additions were added in the ’70s; the last renovations were completed in the early ’90s.
An architectural firm’s complete facility analysis found that the building was structurally sound, and that there was no need to tear it down. But it was clear the school needed a lot of work, and the whole community weighed in on the issue. The community considered a number of potential courses of action, including moving students to other area elementary schools in Bristol and Starksboro, using a new site for the elementary school and using the old space for the town office, among other options.
Meanwhile, the school was still serving more than 100 elementary school students. As a temporary solution, a mobile facility was brought in, which everyone called the Caboose.
Riley acknowledged that there was a vocal minority who felt the services offered by the school were redundant and that children could get the same services in other nearby towns. But, she said, “The overwhelming sentiment expressed at public meetings was, this school is vital and integral to the community — let’s figure out how to keep it here.”
A design was proposed that added space to the building to accommodate a need for a music room, an art room and a performance space, but it soon became clear that recently passed legislation would prevent the school from increasing its footprint in a cost-effective way. The school was approved to replace the Caboose with a permanent structure — “But not a foot over!” Riley laughed — and after reconfiguring some of the rooms to allow space for those creative endeavors, a proposal went to the voters in January 2011.
Initially, the proposal, in the form of a $2 million bond, was voted down — by less than 10 votes.
The board met again, and decided to send the same proposal back to voters at town meeting last year.
“They couldn’t, in good conscience, cut back on a project that had already been trimmed way down,” Riley explained, referring to school board members. “They definitely wrestled with it, and I admire their fortitude. To put the same plan back to voters who had just rejected it is really difficult.”
At town meeting, held just over a month after the first vote, Lincoln voters passed the bond. Construction, which was meant to begin that summer, actually began at the start of the academic year in September 2011.
There were, Riley remembers between 20 and 30 construction workers on site on any given day. During one short period, the seven-classroom school was down to three usable classrooms. But the close proximity led to more intimacy and exploration: Students established meaningful bonds with the tradesmen, colleagues doubled up classes and students spent time in Burnham Hall.
“It was bedlam,” Riley said. “But really, really exciting. It was a wonderful experience overall.”
These days, Riley and her staff and students are basking in the comfort of their workplace.
“Our library used to be the gym, so there were lines on the floor” remembered Beth Nelson, one of the school’s librarians. The floors are now made of beautiful polished wood, with two cozy area carpets. Tables and bookshelves form inviting nooks for students to work and read.
“It feels wonderful,” Nelson added. “It feels invigorating. It feels like the heart of the school now.”
The school kitchen was also completely rehabbed.
“It’s beautiful,” said Bonnie Rathbun, who was preparing a lunch of pulled pork, homemade bread, corn on the cob and baked beans for the student’s lunch last Thursday. Fresh, local vegetables were chopped and put aside for an afternoon snack, and a brand new pot rack hung from the ceiling. “It works so well.”
“It’s wonderful,” added Laura Collaro, the food service manager. “It’s so much more efficient and inviting. It’s just warmer.”
The community is invited to explore the new school building at the Lincoln Community School’s Open House/Renovation Dedication, which will be held on Oct. 18 at 5:30 p.m.
Reporter Xian Chiang-Waren is at firstname.lastname@example.org.