Massive Bill Coming Due On School Infrastructure Projects Throughout Vermont
A new survey of school districts across Vermont has revealed a backlog of more than half a billion dollars in unmet infrastructure needs.
Elected officials have devoted enormous attention in recent years to issues such as school governance, and the cost of delivering classroom instruction. Jeff Francis, head of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said a new financial reckoning is afoot.
"Pressures on education funding and spending have manifested themselves in ways that have not led to keeping facilities in the best condition over the years," Francis said.
According to an unofficial survey conducted by his organization recently, Vermont school districts are planning or proposing $565 million worth of maintenance and construction projects between now and 2023.
Francis said districts have yet to identify a revenue source to cover the expenses.
"It is a big issue for the state. It is a big issue for policymakers in the state," Francis said. "And it is an issue that has been largely unattended to since 2007."
More from VPR — Vermont Doesn't Give Money For School Construction, But Infrastructure Needs Persist [June 18, 2019]
2007 was the year that lawmakers imposed a moratorium on state aid for school construction projects. According to Springfield Rep. Alice Emmons, chair of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, elected officials discontinued the program because they couldn't keep pace with demand.
But Shelburne Rep. Kate Webb, who chairs the House Education Committee, said that demand hasn't gone away in the meantime. And she said infrastructure needs may be at a tipping point.
"I do believe that we're facing a tsunami of requests coming forward," Webb said.
"I do believe that we're facing a tsunami of [infrastructure] requests coming forward." — Rep. Kate Webb, House Education Committee chair
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Jen Botzojorns, superintendent of the Kingdom East Unified Union School District, made her way through a makeshift entryway to the basement of the Gilman Middle School, in Lunenburg.
The narrow path was encased in a clear plastic sheeting, part of an impermeable membrane that prevents air in the basement from leaking into the classrooms above it.
"This is sealed because of the mold and the lead," Botzojorns said. "They don't want that upstairs."
A few steps into the basement of this nearly 100-year-old building, the source of that mold became clear.
"So if you look, you can see there's actually water," Botzojorns said.
Kingdom East Facilities Director Marc Brown discovered this pit of brackish water at Gilman Middle School when he noticed black mold on some 2-by-4 framing last June, and then tore up the wood floor to see where it was coming from. It turns out the basement is below the water table, and a nearby swamp has been gurgling into the basement undetected for years.
Gilman Middle School isn't the only building in the Kingdom East School District that has problems.
"In the Lunenburg [elementary] school, there's sewage ejection pumps in the classroom ... and that diverts the septic so it doesn't go back up into the sink, basically," Botzojorns said.
David Epstein, managing principal at TruexCullins Architecture, in Burlington, has been working on an infrastructure assessment of Vermont schools.
"Yeah, I've definitely seen schools that I would hesitate to send my kids to — no question," Epstein said.
He said many districts in Vermont have struggled to keep pace with upkeep and maintenance of their old school infrastructure, and he said the neglect has taken its toll.
“Roofs that leak, HVAC systems that don't work properly," Epstein said. "Windows that are old and leaky."
Many taxpayers are already concerned about the cost of education in Vermont, but infrastructure needs present a new cost driver that could add even more expenses to the system.
Many of the 300 or so school buildings in Vermont are in varying states of disrepair, and lawmaker Emmons said it's unclear at this point where the money will come from to fix or replace them.
"When you're looking at a brand-new building, and the districts are looking at an $80 million to $100 million construction cost, how are we going to have the capacity?" Emmons said.
In the absence of state aid, districts have been left to deal with infrastructure needs on their own — and many education officials say that system of localized decision-making has exacerbated inequities across district lines.
"There's not a large tax base here, and our communities are poor." — Kingdom East Superintendent Jen Botzojorns
Districts in more affluent communities have easily passed bond votes for expensive school construction projects, such as a $20 million package passed in Williston a few years ago.
Passing bond votes in poorer areas, like the rural Northeast Kingdom, hasn't been so easy. Residents in the Kingdom East Unified Union School District rejected a $24 million bond vote for facilities improvements by a 4-to-1 margin last year.
"There's not a large tax base here, and our communities are poor," Botzojorns said. "When you're on a fixed income and you're retired ... even $10 or $15 more is a lot."
And Botzojorns said that means students in her district go to schools that a lot of parents in Chittenden County wouldn't let their kids set foot in. She formerly served as principal at Mount Mansfield Union High School, in Jericho, and as director of curriculum for the Chittenden East School District.
"There is no, no doubt that the difference between our facilities and facilities in other parts of the state, it's — like, what I see here would never occur in other communities. Never. It just would not happen," Botzojorns said.
Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French said there's no doubt that some of the schools in Vermont aren’t conducive to 21st-century learning, and he said it's probably time for the state to resume its role in funding school construction projects.
But, French said, there aren't enough resources to get every school in the state up to standard.
"I just don't think it's feasible with declining enrollments that we invest in every single building in the same way that we have in the past," French said.
According to French, state aid should be reserved for school construction proposals that acknowledge that reality; he said the school construction process should be used to facilitate regional consolidation, especially of sparsely attended middle schools.
Francis, with the Vermont Superintendents Association, said the prospect of school closures can be incredibly controversial — but he said declining student numbers will require some tough decisions.
"We need to be right-sizing the delivery system, in terms of buildings that are operated, the number of personnel we employ, and how you have modern facilities to serve every child in the state," Francis said. "And I think to the extent that a school building constitutes the center of a community, then I think we might need to take a look at how we define a community in order to get really good facilities to every kid."
"I just don't think it's feasible with declining enrollments that we invest in every single building in the same way that we have in the past." — Vt. Education Secretary Dan French
Webb said the issue of unfunded infrastructure liabilities isn't unique to Vermont; two bills pending in Congress would appropriate billions of dollars in federal funds for school infrastructure projects across the country.
But Webb said prospects of that legislation passing are dim, and she said her education committee doesn't have any ready answers yet when it comes to the issue of state-level funding.
"Raising revenue from new sources is often a challenge. Adding to any existing taxes is a challenge," Webb said.
Other states have made major investments in their school infrastructure: Massachusetts, for example, added a penny to its state sales tax and the surcharge has generated nearly $13 billion in revenue for school construction projects over the past decade.
Webb said it remains to be seen how Vermont will tackle the challenge.
"We're moving kind of away from prevention toward crisis," Webb said. "And we in Vermont seem to do better in responding to crisis than to prevention."