On February 26, 2020

Vermont’s school construction needs exceed $565 million

By Lola Duffort/VTDigger

Since the state put a moratorium on school construction aid a decade ago, Vermont’s preK-12 districts have bonded on their own for local projects to the tune of about $350 million. But that number could more than double in the next couple years as schools begin addressing long-deferred capital needs.

An ad-hoc group convened by the Vermont Superintendents Association surveyed school districts and gathered information from the Vermont Bond Bank over the summer to get a statewide picture of planned projects. It found another $565 million in proposed or pending construction coming down the pike.

“That was an eye-popping number, I think, for everybody,” David Epstein, a principal at the Burlington architecture firm TruexCullins, told lawmakers in the House Education Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 11.

And despite dwindling enrollments, administrators often complain that they’re running out of room. That’s in part because some communities are growing, but also because most schools were built before districts became de-facto hubs for a slew of new social service and mental health services.

Epstein noted his own wife, a school-based clinician, had at one point worked with children from inside a gym storage closet.

“So while she’s working with the most needy populations, there’s basketballs hitting her door, interrupting the sessions. And that’s the way it is in Vermont schools right now,” he said.

Many of the state’s middle and high schools date back to the 1950s and ’60s, when the union school movement swept Vermont. And the most recent wave of school construction was in the late ’80s and ’90s, when the state saw a population boom.

But a recent spate of school construction projects has prompted state officials and lawmakers to return to the subject of capital needs. And of particular concern is which communities are – and which communities aren’t – getting bonds greenlighted at the ballot box.

Two Chittenden County cities – Burlington and Winooski – have recently passed large bonds, and the most expensive project proposed in the state right now is in South Burlington, where the school board is pitching to build a new middle and high school for $209 million. Meanwhile, rural, often poorer districts are putting forward much smaller projects – or getting shot down by voters.

Locally, voters in the Slate Valley Unified Union School District will be asked to approve a nearly $60 million bond to fund a comprehensive facilities upgrade plan, including the construction of a new district middle school on the Fair Haven Union High School campus and upgrades to the existing high school building. The vote will happen at Town Meeting Day, March 3.

“One of the things that’s becoming more and more apparent is that there’s a real equity issue here, in that towns that can afford to pass bond votes and budgets can improve their buildings. And the towns that can’t – their buildings languish,” Epstein said.

When Vermont school districts get voter approval to bond for construction projects, the cost is borne by the state’s education fund, which is fed by property, sales, and meals and rooms taxes.

Just as with teacher salaries and supplies, a district’s debt service is included when the state calculates that community’s per-pupil spending, the key number upon which local property tax rates are determined. (Capital debt, however, is excluded when the state calculates whether communities must pay a tax penalty for being the highest education spenders.)

Mark Perrault, an analyst with the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office, told lawmakers that means the state – through the education fund – already largely picks up the tab for local bonding projects, despite no longer having a formal school construction aid program.

“The problem is it’s not necessarily going out in a way that you would have it go out if you were taking a more top-down approach and trying to direct the money where it’s mostly needed,” he said.

House Education ranking member Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, said that Vermont already had, in effect, a system to pay for school construction “that is equitable in the sense that needier towns get a little more assistance through the ed fund than wealthier towns.”

“What we don’t have is an equitable way to make the decision as to who gets what. It’s almost like the financial system’s in place. The decision-making system is not,” he said.

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