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Vermont Doesn't Give Money For School Construction, But Infrastructure Needs Persist

The brick exterior of Woodstock Union High School and Middle School, with a green sign out front.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
VPR File
The newly merged Windsor Central Modified Unified Union School District is looking at possibly replacing Woodstock Union High School and Middle School.

Vermont put a moratorium on school building construction aid in 2007, but now some people want to change course.

In a post-Act 46 world — and as the number of students in Vermont continues to drop doling out school construction money has become more complicated. As districts consider closing schools, there's more focus on investing with an eye toward the future.

When Vermont put a hold on its school construction aid 12 years ago, the state had already committed about $62 million to new projects that were in the pipeline; it took about five years to pay all of that off.

The moratorium was supposed to be temporary. As Vermont continued struggling with property tax rates, lawmakers never got back around to supporting the school construction aid program.

Secretary of Education Dan French said it's probably time now to begin investing again in school buildings.

"We are in a knowledge-based economy, and education is front and center in a knowledge-based economy," French said. "That we have to really make some investments in our education infrastructure if we're going to, you know, be viable as a state and have viable communities."

But French said before any money goes into renovations or into new buildings, he wants to see a statewide  assessment done of every school.

Implementation of Act 46 has school districts around the state considering investments needed to keep their buildings safe and updated. In the Addison Central School District — where they may consolidate schools — the estimated investments in the district's older schools have been a major talking point.

French said as other newly merged districts consider the needs of larger groups of students, the investments need to go toward modern facilities and not to outdated school buildings.  

"We are going to be doing more regionalization at the middle school level. ... In order to offer what those students need, we're going to bringing them together probably in larger facilities," French said. "So we need to think about, you know, what does a larger middle school kind of model look like for rural Vermont?"

For almost three years, the Windsor Central Supervisory Union school district has been working onits plan to replace the more the 50-year-old Woodstock High School and Middle School.

The district conducted studies, and it looked at enrollment data and talked about building anew versus renovating. At a recent meeting, supervisory union chairwoman Paige Hiller said the board was ready to begin thinking about how the district might finance the project.

“If we did build a new school, how then do we finance a new school?” Hiller asked.

Bob Coates, a member of the building committee, said he was looking forward to moving into the next phase — even though it's unclear if state money will be available.

"I think the next phase is obviously a critical one, and that's trying to put together the financing," Coates said. "So it's just hard to understand how much private financing may or may not be part of this picture. It's hard to know what the state can and cannot do for us."

bill was introduced this year in the Legislature to lift the moratorium and put a commission together to look at the state's schools. Although hearings were held, the bill never made it out of committee.

South Burlington Rep. Martin LaLonde, the lead sponsor of the bill, said the need for repair will only grow and get more expensive over time. LaLonde said rural, low-income districts will be challenged to find the money to invest in their schools.

"We have a responsibility at the state legislative level to educate all of our kids and to make sure that there's equity in education which means equity in the infrastructure." — Rep. Martin LaLonde, South Burlington

"We have a responsibility at the state legislative level to educate all of our kids and to make sure that there’s equity in education which means equity in the infrastructure," LaLonde said. “And I think that's why a statewide approach is necessary.”

That statewide approach can come with a hefty price tag. According to LaLonde, a very rough estimate puts the expected investment into Vermont's schools at more than $2 billion.

David Epstein is an architect who specializes in school construction. He helped form a group called Better School Buildings VT, which is advocating for a more ambitious approach toward investing in schools.

Epstein said he wants the state to take a leadership role in establishing sustainable and educational building standards, to make sure any new building meets all the needs of today's students.

"Education has changed, but the buildings haven't," Epstein said. "So you have the need to update the buildings in terms of energy efficiency and indoor air quality, but also adapt them to the needs of the modern education system."

Even though the Legislature failed to form a school buildings commission, French and Epstein both said they want to start gathering data this summer in hopes that the issue will be brought up again next year in the Statehouse.

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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