BARRE, Vt. — A security-related school project that is still a work in process has already failed Barre 101: If you’re going to use granite — particularly gray granite — in a public project, it is best to buy local.
School officials are learning that lesson the hard way following the recent installation of 12 granite bollards that double as planters and effectively limit the exit at Spaulding High School to one lane.
There are yet-to-be-installed benches where those bollards came from, but none were manufactured in Barre.
That’s a problem, according to some members of a school board that didn’t exist when the decision was made to use granite imported from China instead of, well, Barre Gray.
Echoing sentiments expressed in a widely circulated email that was sent by Mark Gherardi hours before the Barre Unified School Board’s meeting on Thursday, one member called the decision a “travesty,” even as another wondered whether it could be undone.
Though they had no part in the pre-merger decision, School Directors Sonya Spaulding and Rebecca Kerin-Hutchins lamented the installation was occurring on their watch and the public relations problem it created.
Spaulding High School is jointly owned by a city that proudly bills itself as the “Granite Center of the World” and a town that is home to quarries that are the reason why.
It’s why Gherardi, president of Buttura & Gherardi Granite Artisans, expressed his “total disgust” for the decision in a scathing email that has ignited an expanding discussion based on the extensive distribution list that included board members, school and city officials, union leaders and others in the granite industry.
Gherardi characterized the decision as a “slap in the face” to hard-working residents — many of them taxpayers — who are employed in the industry that put Barre — the city and the town — on the map.
“. . . I respectfully submit that you should think twice about placing these inferior products of a low quality granite in the city that largely makes its living off this very industry,” Gherardi wrote. “Shame on any of you who were involved in this decision and also to the narrow-minded and profit motivated people from our industry who even considered supplying this crap to our city.”
Gherardi, a Spaulding graduate, stressed it wasn’t about the money.
“... I am not at all miffed that our company was not considered to supply these pieces but am very upset that this was not produced of Barre granite and manufactured in Barre, Vermont,” he wrote. “I think they should be ripped out and replaced with our community’s exceptional natural resource — the way it should be.”
That’s where things stood when Kerin-Hutchins inquired about the email as Thursday night’s meeting was coming to an end. By then former Barre mayor Thomas Lauzon had already weighed in electronically, expressing his support for Gherardi’s position.
“. . . I can easily overlook a poor decision that is owned and corrected,” Lauzon wrote. “I can’t overlook a poor decision that’s allowed to stand. Please reconsider.”
Kerin-Hutchins wondered whether that was possible — kicking off a discussion that touched on history, geography, geology and economics.
Chairman Paul Malone said it was the latter that drove a facilities committee recommendation that was blessed by the now-dormant Spaulding High School Board.
According to Malone, the committee ruled out Barre granite due to cost considerations and the limitations of a $10,000 state safety grant that paid for the work.
“We wanted to get as much done with that limited resource as possible,” he said, defending the decision.
School Director Tim Boltin, who, like Malone previously served on the Spaulding board, offered a “what-if” for the sake of discussion.
“We’re having a stroke over this Chinese gray granite and we don’t care whether our school buys text books off of Amazon when there’s a bookstore in town?” he asked. “Why is that not the same thing?”
Spaulding said it is, and it isn’t.
“The City and Town of Barre . . . would not be here without our granite quarries and our granite industry,” she said. “With all due respect to our lovely bookstore in downtown Barre and all of the bakeries and all of the hardware stores . . . without Barre Gray we would not be here.”
Spaulding went on to describe the decision to use granite products manufactured in China instead as unfortunate.
“I think it’s a travesty that we’re not using the resource that our community was built on,” she said.
Malone said granite has been used liberally in Spaulding High School, in large part due to the generosity of Rock of Ages and manufacturers like, Gherardi. In fact, at the same time the decision was being made to use Chinese granite to narrow the school’s exit and provide a buffer for picnic tables located outside the cafeteria, local manufacturers were fabricating the structural component of a just-installed digital signboard in front of the high school.
“How many times can you go back to that well asking for donations?” he asked, noting that using Barre granite would likely have put the project $15,000 to $20,000 over budget.
School Director Gina Akley said there was a “financial argument” to make, but the board needed data it didn’t have to make it.
“It’s being presented as if no one (in the local granite industry) was asked,” she said, suggesting information that suggests otherwise would be useful.
To the extent that conversation occurred, it was largely limited to the former facilities committee, and updates provided to the Spaulding board referenced “granite” but not its source.
Malone insisted Friday board members were aware and bristled at the criticism of a decision to address an identified safety issue within the confines of a $10,000 grant.
“This is kind of frustrating,” he said, noting area manufacturers — including Gherardi’s firm — import granite from China and India.
Attempts to reach Gherardi for comment were unsuccessful on Friday.
Malone said the project wasn’t intended to sleight Barre’s granite industry, and if local manufacturers felt strongly, they were welcome to replace the bollards and benches.
“We won’t stand in their way,” he said.
Malone and others expressed concern about the polarizing, and in some cases personal, tone of a debate that some were reluctant to publicly wade into.
It wasn’t completely clear whether the new board would revisit a decision it didn’t make or simply declare the lesson learned and move on.
Malone would strongly prefer the latter.
“We’ve got too many other major educational issues to deal with,” he said.
Information from: The Times Argus, http://www.timesargus.com/