Saxon Hill School looks for a new home

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By Phyl Newbeck
For The Essex Reporter

For 50 years, the Saxon Hill School has been educating pre-school children in Jericho. Next summer that may change since their landlord, the Jericho Historical Society (JHS), will not renew the school’s lease. Founded in 1964 in a farmhouse on Skunk Hollow Road the school, which bills itself as Vermont’s first parent cooperative pre-school, has been located just off Route 15 and adjacent to the Old Red Mill Park for the last 29 years.

Director of Education Michele Campbell said the school was taken by surprise by the non-renewal. A review of JHS board minutes from May and July reveal no discussion of the lease but when Jen Tumilowicz, the school’s historical society liaison, attended their September meeting she was told there was the possibility the lease would not be renewed. After she left, the board voted 10-1 with one abstention not to renew the lease and a certified letter was sent a month later on Oct. 9. The letter offered the school an extra month to finish out the school year. Saxon Hill requested an extension until Aug. 30, 2016 to give them time to find a location that fits their philosophy as well as to raise money for the move but the request was denied in writing on Nov. 5, prior to the board’s Nov. 13 meeting.

Although the letters contained no rationale for the non-renewal, the school was verbally informed that it was due to concerns about the cost of replacing the building’s septic system in the event of a failure. Campbell requested a conversation with the JHS board in the hope of finding a mutually agreeable solution as well as the opportunity to look at the septic report and/or get a second opinion.

“That didn’t happen,” she said. “We work with kids and teach them to be socially aware and to be problem solvers. Everyone gets a chance to sit down and talk about what works and what doesn’t work and here we’re dealing with a group of people who don’t want to talk to us.”

JHS owns the Old Red Mill, which houses the Snowflake Bentley Museum and a craft shop, the building rented by Saxon Hill School, and another residential building. Historical Society President Ann Squires said the leach field that used to service the school failed in 1990 requiring effluent to be pumped to a backup field. Three years later the Old Red Mill’s leach field failed and was redone to accommodate the mill and the residence. In 2010 that field failed again and a pump station was installed to pump waste to the same backup field. Squires said the replacement system did not comply with state requirements but was grandfathered in because it was already in use. She said there is no room for another field to be created in the event the current one fails.

Squires said she was told that leach fields can last up to 30 years and this one has been used for 24 years. Since the state is in the process of designing new regulations, she has no idea what the cost of a new system might be, but she has heard estimates of over $100,000. She believes it has taken over a year to install a new system at the gas station next door and worries about the effect that kind of delay would have on the two residential tenants, as well as the crafters who sell their wares at the gift shop. Squires plans to convert the school into office space and will eventually do the same with the residential tenants although they have not been asked to leave.

“If the leach field failed today,” she said “the school would have to be out in three days, the tenants would have to leave and the Mill would be closed down unless we used an outside port-a-let.”

Bill Zabiloski, Assistant Regional Engineer for the state’s Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division, said he is not aware of any failure of the Historical Society’s current septic system. He said the state does not recommend installation of new systems unless there is evidence of failure of the old one and there is no limit to how long a leach field can operate.

“Some people are proactive,” he said, “but you can continue to use a system as long as it hasn’t failed.” Zabiloski said he could not venture an opinion on the cost of a new system but noted that the permitting process is not a particularly lengthy one. “Depending on the size of the project it’s 30 to 45 days to issue a permit,” he said “but a failed system would go to the top of the workload and the permit would be issued sooner.”

Saxon Hill parents and staff attended the Nov. 13 meeting of the Historical Society to plead their case one more time. The JHS board agreed to allow the school to solicit a second opinion about the septic system, which will be done as soon as possible. The school will also explore ways to lessen their impact on the system, such as a chemical toilet, and the JHS may call a special meeting before their regularly scheduled January meeting for a follow-up vote on the school’s request for an extension. At the least, the school would like two more months to accommodate their summer camp. Squires believes the board will vote to allow those extra weeks. The JHS also agreed to allow the school to keep their outdoor playground equipment in place until they can find a permanent home.

Saxon Hill has formed an advisory council to look at properties that meet the school’s philosophy. The school’s current location provides them with immediate access to the Old Mill Park and allows children the opportunity to explore.

“It’s an amazing place,” said Campbell who has been affiliated with the school for 38 years, first as a parent and then as an employee. “I teach some of the children of people I’ve taught. We know we have to leave but we can’t move without finding a place that offers some of these amenities.”

In the meantime, the school has launched a capital campaign for a new location and the historical society is considering doing the same for a new septic system. The Saxon Hill School is accepting donations at www.gofundme.com/shscapcampaign. They are hoping to raise $150,000 and money is already coming in.

“People have already come out to help,” said Campbell. “This community is amazing.”