On February 28, 2024

‘A perfect mess’: School construction needs in a chaotic budget year

By Habib Sabet and Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

In fall 2023, the leaders of the Milton Town School District unveiled the design for its new elementary and middle school (pre-K-8) at a cost of $200 million, which gave the community pause, but it was the challenges of the current annual budget cycle that ultimately led the district to table the much-needed project this year. 

Initial projections that indicated that property taxes could increase statewide by an average of 20% have the state and district school boards scrambling. 

Some are also pointing fingers at Act 127, a new law taking effect this budget season that changes the way statewide education funding is distributed. Its purpose is, in short, to direct more funding to schools with pupils who are more expensive to teach, such as English language learners, rural students and students living in poverty. Coupled with the sharp rise in property values statewide over the last three years — which is reflected in a town-by-town tax rate adjustment called the Common Level of Appraisal, or CLA — many district boards are bracing for the public’s reaction to eye-popping tax increases.

“To me it’s just the perfect mess,” said Amy Rex, superintendent of the Milton district. 

“I mean with Act 127 and the CLA mess that exists right now and, you know, 20- to 40-cent increases on homestead tax rates, people don’t even want to hear the word ‘bond’ — especially in this community,” she said. “And I get that. I get it.” 

Milton is far from alone in choosing to continue to delay school upgrades. Last month, the Sharon School Board moved to table a vote on a roughly $10 million bond for security upgrades and other renovations on the Sharon Elementary School, citing uncertainty surrounding tax increases this year.

But a few districts are still moving forward, taking their chances because they feel they have no choice. In some locations, school leaders believe that major work can simply no longer be deferred.

One of them is Mountain Views Supervisory Union — composed of Barnard, Bridgewater, Killington, Plymouth, Pomfret, Reading and Woodstock. That district ranked second worst in the state’s recently completed facilities assessment.

March 5 voters will be asked to decide whether to approve a $99 million bond to fund the construction of a new school.

“We absolutely can’t afford to wait,” Ben Ford, a Mountain Views board member who’s leading the school bond campaign, said in an interview, citing ever-growing construction costs. “We’re not doing our students or our taxpayers any favors by continuing to wait.”


By Glenn Russell/VTDigger
Buildings and Grounds Manager Paul Woodman holds a section of original piping at Woodstock Union Middle School and High School on Monday, January 15, 2024.

‘If it were free we would rejoice’

Woodstock Union High School and Middle School first went into service in the late 1950s. Now, failing systems, the district mulled its options. It considered three possibilities: a renovation, building around existing buildings, and building new.

At $51 million, renovation wouldn’t “move the needle” when it comes to the school reaching its goals of creating spaces for modern education and improving energy efficiency, said Ford, the Mountain Views school board member leading the new school initiative.

“That was not attractive in terms of an expenditure level that high to achieve such a modest outcome,” he said, “particularly where you’re thinking, ‘What if we do that? Can we even make the building, you know, fire code, or ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant?’ And the answer is likely, ‘No’.”

Last Town Meeting Day, voters approved a bond to begin designing and permitting a new school. Since a new school was first imagined, the price tag has ballooned with inflation and rising construction costs, from about $65 million in 2019 to today’s $99 million, Ford said. 

If the bond passes, Ford said construction could begin in 2025 next to the current school, so that students could continue learning in the existing building. A new building could be ready to open as early as the fall 2026 school year.

Ford acknowledged the tax burden of a $99 million bond, and district leaders have created an adjustable tax calculator that allows voters to predict their estimated taxes based on a variety of factors. The exact terms of the bond — interest rate and length — as well as other variables like the number of students in the district over time can be adjusted and the effects on taxes estimated.

But Ford also sees additional ways of lightening the cost, including private fundraising and the possibility of the state construction aid. In fact the Agency of Education (AOE) endorsed MVSU’s plans for its new middle/high school construction project qualifying it for construction aid upon the state’s reinstatement of the program on Feb. 16 (see story in last week’s edition, titled “Agency of Ed endorses plan to build new Woodstock school”).

Perhaps most importantly, Ford believes that a new school would attract more students, both from out-of-district towns and those locally choosing to attend other schools, ultimately lowering education costs down the road. 

 

 
By Jaimie Ziobro
A rally for the bond to build a new middle school/high school was held Saturday on The Green in Woodstock. Voters will vote on the measure, March 5.

 

“There is competition for our students,” he said. Anecdotally, more students are tuitioning into other area schools like Hanover High School, Kimball Union Academy, and Upper Valley Waldorf School, according to Ford. Currently Mountain Views attracts only a fraction of students from nearby school-choice towns. 

“The skeptics’ line is, ‘you can’t bank on [the idea] if we build it, they will come,’” Ford said. But countered: “We’ve already seen that if we don’t build it, they will leave.”

Skeptics have indeed homed in on the notion that a new school could boost enrollment, as well as the overall cost of construction. Suzanne Wooten, Jennifer Falvey and Peggy Fraser are three district residents who have helped organize a “grassroots movement” against the bond as it’s written.

“If it were free, we would rejoice,” Falvey said. But with property taxes already expected to increase upward of 20%, she instead supports renovation. “We all have to make hard decisions when it comes to the finances,” she said. “We cannot afford this.”

Ford said that, historically, Town Meeting Day has seen low voter turnout. For that reason, getting out the vote is a top priority for the board, with a preliminary target of 1,250 “yes” votes. 

 


Courtesy MVSU
A rendering of the proposed new middle/high school in Woodstock would be built adjacent to the existing building, if passed. The $99 million bonds is up for vote March 5.

 

District leaders are also hosting information sessions in area towns leading up to the vote. There, they hope to convey their sense of urgency to make the investment.

Ford called those sessions “one of the most effective” methods of conveying the need for a new school.

“You actually have to facilitate conversations, first and foremost, and get into a discussion with people,” he said. “Those that have come out and learned about the plan versus the alternatives understand that this is the most cost-effective return on our investment for our students, community and taxpayers over time.”

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