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Vt. towns that can't afford school construction projects look to Montpelier for help

A man in jeans, sweatshirt and baseball cap stands in front of an old oil burner, with pipes running from the container.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
Todd Parah, facilities director at Green Mountain Union High School in Chester, stands in front of the school's oil burner, which Parah says has reached the end of its useful life.

The state of Vermont hasn’t put up money for school construction projects for almost 15 years.

And since then, local taxpayers have had to fully fund more than $200 million in school upgrades.

The Agency of Education says there’s a growing inequity between districts that can get their projects passed by voters, and those that can't.

And the agency also says there’s now a backlog of projects that’s potentially causing health and safety issues at the schools with the highest needs.

At Green Mountain Union High School in Chester, voters recently rejected a $20 million bond proposal to upgrade the school’s aging infrastructure.

And Todd Parah, who’s head of facilities at Green Mountain, says the district has to figure out a way to upgrade the equipment.

“Here in our school district, along with a majority of them in the state of Vermont, we’re not at a want-basis, we’re going to be at a need-basis,” Parah said. “The systems are at their end-of-use life, and nobody knows where the money’s gonna come from.”

A lot of the equipment at the school was installed back in the early 1970s, when Green Mountain first opened.

“Here in our school district, along with a majority of them in the state of Vermont, we’re not at a want-basis, we’re going to be at a need-basis."
Todd Parah, facilities director at Green Mountain Union High School

A report last year from the Agency of Educationfound that Green Mountain Union High School has some of the worst building conditions in the state.

Parah says the voters of the four-town Two Rivers Supervisory Union Districtrejected the school repair bond, because a lot of people he spoke to weren’t willing see their taxes go up to pay for the upgrades.

“The people I talk to, were very understanding,” he said. “They didn’t feel like we were being frivolous with spending money that we didn’t need to spend. They just were having a hard time with such a big number for a small community.”

The "no" vote in Windsor County happened on the same day that voters in Burlington approved a $165 million bond for their high school.

And so while the students in Chittenden County can look forward to attending a state-of-the-art, 21st-century facility, the administration in Chester is left hoping that their ancient oil boiler makes it through one more Vermont winter.

“The communities that have the political capital to pass bond issues, will. And they will always continue to do that," said Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French. "And the communities that struggle to do that, are going to continue to struggle.”

More fromBrave Little State:What if we funded public education differently?

Vermont used to provide state money to communities to invest in their schools, using a formula that was basically built around square-footage per pupil.

But as the projects got more complex, and expensive, the state shut down its construction aid fund in 2007.

Vermont is now the only state in the Northeast without a school construction aid program.

State lawmakers want to change that, and they’ve asked the Agency of Education to develop a new way to decide who should get state funds if they become available.

French says students can’t receive the same academic services when there’s such a wide gap between towns that can afford modern schools, and those that can’t.

"The bottom line is without any state or federal support, it’s all on the back of the taxpayers here, and I don’t think that’s going to sell in the community.”
Mark Tucker, Caledonia Central Supervisory Union superintendent

“You know the policy around school facilities needs to be updated, renewed, reimagined,” French said. “I think the piece that’s missing, and the piece I’m keenly interested in, is making the connection between school facilities and education opportunities and education quality.”

The Agency of Education is currently doing a detailed inspection at every school building in the state to get a better idea of what kind of work is needed.

Mark Tucker, who’s the superintendent of the Caledonia Central Supervisory Union in the Northeast Kingdom, says he’ll be watching what happens with the school construction funding debate.

A photo of an old electrical panel with wires and breakers
Courtesy
/
Danville School 2019 facility evaluation report
A 66-year-old electric panel with exposed wires needs to be replaced at the Danville School.

The pre-K-through-12 Danville School, which has about 350 kids, needs more than $70 million dollars in renovations,Tucker said.

“At this point, we’ve kind of hit a brick wall with the community for understandable reasons,” Tucker said. “The tax impact for some taxpayers could be pretty significant. The bottom line is without any state or federal support, it’s all on the back of the taxpayers here, and I don’t think that’s going to sell in the community.”

And in his small Northeast Kingdom town, where there are less than 2,000 taxpayers, Tucker says there’s no way the community can take that on alone.

“This is a rural community, and we don’t have the industry base, you know, the taxing capacity to raise money like a Burlington does,” Tucker said. “There’s a Chittenden County area, where, you know, the industry and businesses clustered in the Chittenden County area, and then there’s the rest of the state. We don’t have the resources here that they do up there.”

Tucker says a vote in Danville is at least a year away, but he says without state or federal help, he’s not sure how his community will find the money for their school.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state. 
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