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Woodstock and surrounding towns will vote on $99 million school bond on Tuesday

A red brick building with "Woodstock Union High School and Middle School" on the front. The sky is blue and there is snow on the ground.
Lola Duffort
Vermont Public
The seven member towns of the Mountain Views School District will decide on Town Meeting Day whether to approve a $99 million bond to replace their combined middle and high school.

There are no sprinklers at Woodstock Union High and Middle School, which serves about 450 students across seven Upper Valley towns. But occasionally, it still rains from the ceiling.

Students were in a classroom and water started pouring down from the ceiling tile, and then the ceiling tile collapsed on the teacher's desk and computer,” Sherry Sousa, Mountain Views Supervisory Union superintendent, recalled during a recent tour of the school. “We had to move the students to the other end of the classroom — because we had no other classroom for them to be in.”

Vermont’s aging schools are in terrible shape. A recent survey of facilities found that the state will need to spend at least $6.4 billion over the next two decades to make the necessary repairs.

In the absence of state or federal help, it’s up to individual districts to ask their local property taxpayers to shoulder the cost. And this Town Meeting Day, the Mountain Views School District will be doing just that, with a $99 million bond on the ballot to completely rebuild the union school.

School officials have mounted a strong case for the bond. In the gym, which is housed in the oldest part of the school — dating back to 1958 — stress fractures have appeared in the walls. After a heavy snow, the roof will start to groan; school personnel must evacuate the gym, and the district’s facilities crew must climb on the roof to manually shovel snow.

A high school gym, with white and green athletic banners on the walls.
Lola Duffort
Vermont Public
Stress fractures have started to appear in the walls of the gym at Woodstock Union Middle and High School, where a flat roof can't bear a heavy snow load.

The building’s woes don’t end there. Over the years, Vermont’s hard water has created such large mineral deposits in the plumbing that pipes 5 or 6 inches in diameter are choked down to an inch or so. The district’s building crew says it does what it can, but many of the pipes are encased in the building’s cement foundation, and completely inaccessible. The system is perpetually on the brink of failure.

Two years ago, for example, sewage backed up on the bathroom floors when the building saw heavy use during a commencement ceremony.

“That's a wonderful graduation night memory for one class,” joked Ben Ford, Mountain Views school board vice chair.

School officials have made an interactive tax calculator available online for residents to calculate the estimated impact on their taxes.

At its peak, the bond is projected to increase a non-income sensitized resident’s bill by 16%. Officials like Ford argue that’s well worth it for a modern, net-zero emissions facility that meets the district’s educational and climate goals.

The school board has also been raising money to offset the bond, and already amassed $3.5 million in private donations. Ford, too, is bullish that a new school will boost enrollment — which would help push down property taxes.

But while board members and administrators are confident the investment is worth it, even within the student body there isn’t consensus.

"There's been some controversy in class about what direction we should go,” said Steve Smith, a social studies teacher at the high school. “[Some] students are saying it's absolutely necessary, they can totally see it. And other students saying they hear that taxes are going to go up a lot. So they're not sure.”

To get his students interested in state and municipal politics, Smith held a mock Town Meeting Day election in class. And while the pro-bond faction won out (with 33 votes) those against the measure still commanded significant numbers (18 votes).

More from Vermont Public: Vermont House passes bill to postpone school budget votes

The timing of Woodstock’s bond vote is difficult. Statewide, property taxes are forecast to increase close to 20% this year because of large jumps in education spending.

That hike prompted lawmakers to take the unprecedented step of tweaking the state’s education finance formula with just weeks to go until Town Meeting Day, in an effort to get schools to revise their spending plans downward. And the Mountain Views school board did just that — taking $700,000 out of their budget in early February.

But all of that anxiety and uncertainty about property taxes has led several districts to postpone plans for major facilities work, fearing more backlash from their voters. But in Woodstock, school officials like Sousa say they can’t afford to wait.

Each year the project becomes more expensive. The cost is not going down year to year,” Sousa said.

Case in point: Between this fall and winter alone, the project’s price tag rose from $80 to $99 million.

Crumbling schools are not unique to Vermont. A federal report in 2020 found that more than half of the country’s public school districts require major overhauls.

For years, school officials nationwide have been clamoring for a federal fix. And many states — including Vermont — have held off on making their own investments, hoping that the feds might come to the rescue.

But Congress has shown no momentum on the matter. And back in Woodstock, Joe Rigoli, Mountain Views facilities director, thinks that soon the state will have no choice but to get involved.

There's 300 and some odd other school buildings in the state of Vermont that are in the same situation that we are,” he said. “And there's some tough choices that have got to be made. I think the state's going to have to step up one way or another, whether it be funding or — I hate to say it — closing more schools, but closing more schools.”

A man with a flannel shirt and down vest stands next to two boilers in the basement of Woodstock Union Middle and High School.
Lola Duffort
Vermont Public
Joe Rigoli, Mountain Views facilities director, stands next to the two boilers in the basement of Woodstock Union Middle and High School on Feb. 26.

As it happens, state lawmakers in Montpelier are increasingly talking about doing both — funding school construction and closing schools.

In the wake of the Great Recession, Vermont suspended its school construction aid program. Now, many lawmakers, like Rep. Peter Conlon, who chairs the education committee in the Vermont House, want to start it back up. And in some cases, they’d like to use state aid as a carrot to convince communities to consolidate smaller schools.

If we're going to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on this, we have to make sure that these investments are smart investments, both for economies of scale, but more importantly, investments in high quality education,” the Cornwall Democrat said.

More from Vermont Public: Report suggests lawmakers could use construction aid to encourage Vermont schools to consolidate

If Vermont does restart its school construction aid program, Mountain Views is optimistic the Woodstock project will receive a retroactive subsidy. But lawmakers have yet to make any firm commitments about when — or even if — they’ll restart such aid.

At the very earliest, it’ll be another year before the legislature puts a new program in place — because doing so will require dedicated revenues, and so far, lawmakers have been unwilling to name what tax or fee they’ll raise to pay for it all.

And until that happens, it’ll be up to individual communities to decide if their property taxpayers are willing — and able — to pay a tab that the state and the federal government have ducked for so long.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Lola is Vermont Public's education and youth reporter, covering schools, child care, the child protection system and anything that matters to kids and families. She's previously reported in Vermont, New Hampshire, Florida (where she grew up) and Canada (where she went to college).
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