On April 7, 2021

Windsor Central School District board: ‘Show us the money!’

By Curt Peterson

Windsor Central Unified Union School District board member and finance committee chair Ben Ford of Woodstock presented an update on the “new build status” March 29. The estimated cost for the new Middle/High School complex is $73,385,782.

District board members are split on whether or not they think that price tag is feasible.

Board chair Bryce Sammel of Barnard told the Mountain Times renovating the existing facility, while somewhat less expensive, wouldn’t “gain all of the efficiencies, [wouldn’t] make it look or feel any different, [and wouldn’t] address all of the issues,” adding, “Renovating wouldn’t “change our educational spaces to meet 21 century learning needs.”

The seven participating towns boast a total population of approximately 7,803. Based on the latest counts: Killington has 811; Woodstock 2,937; Pomfret 864;  Barnard 926; Plymouth 619; Bridgewater 980; and Reading 666. Ergo, the new campus facility would cost about $9,400 per resident in the district.

By comparison, Sammel said, renovations would still cost $6,500 per resident without addressing everything.

“Doing nothing could have huge implications to the future of our district,” Sammel said, “which is within 50 minutes of four other regional high schools with larger populations. I don’t know how to easily quantify the [effect of] loss of students, or, worst case scenario, the entire school if the state continues their consolidation efforts in an attempt to quell education funding concerns.”

He feels “doing nothing” about updating the Woodstock campus will result in students leaving the district, which would ultimately have an adverse effect on taxes.

Therefore, the building plans and cost reflect the best of the best, but how the project will be financed, and what effect the net cost after fundraising will have on local taxes, is still a tad murky.

Conversely, in the past, some board members had suggested that the new building would attract increased enrollment that could help defray costs. If it attracted more tuitioned students it would provide additional funds, and if it attracted more resident students it would mean lower per/qualified pupil costs within the education tax formula. But either idea is considered “one of the biggest factors” by Chairman Sammel.

Originally, the district considered a 20-year $74 million bond, augmented by hoped-for private donations and state and federal grants, the balance to be funded through local taxes. Ford said a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture loan would save about $4 million in interest versus the bonding route.

The USDA loan would be amortized — level annual payments — versus front-loaded bond payments of $4,355,066 the first year and averaging $2,500,000 over 20 years. An amortized repayment schedule is easier to budget and produces less dramatic effect on taxes.

Ford pointed out that any funds raised or grants received would reduce the amount of the debt required to build the new school, and the taxes necessary to pay for it.

If the state approves a pending bill in the Legislature, such capital projects would not put school districts into a penalty phase based on the cost per equalized pupil formula — otherwise any expense over the threshold costs $2 for every $1 over.

The district is expecting to receive  $4.6 million between three Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund) allocations that will be spent in the next three years for Covid-related expenses. About $2.6 million of that has not yet been received. It isn’t clear if new construction would qualify, or if the time limit is workable.

The committee hopes to attract $10-$20 million in private donations as part of the financing, which, Ford said, “would keep the tax impact down.”

Tax-wise, according to Sammel, “A majority of our population will not realize any change in their taxes, due to [either], a) being second-home owners, or b) making less than $150,000/year and having homes worth [less than] $400,000.”

It’s also hoped that private money might fund an endowment to support “ongoing stewardship” of the new complex.

During the meeting, Ford also floated a suggestion from Johnson Controls that a third party might build the facility and lease it to the district, eliminating the need for construction financing entirely. “We would be paying rent,” he explained, “that would probably be less than the debt service payments.”

The new-build concept includes 162,000 square feet of education and administration space on two floors — the same footprint as the current building. It would be built nearby. Ottauquechee River corridor issues dictated the siting, which will affect some athletic fields.

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