By Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger
A long-awaited report on how Vermont should address its billions of dollars in school construction needs arrived in the Legislature on Thursday, Feb. 1.
In short, the report suggests the state should consider incentivizing districts to build in ways that align with the state’s goals. That could mean a “newer and fewer” approach, building healthier schools, and considering equity, such as supporting districts with more impoverished students or a smaller tax base.
Informed by guidance from the Agency of Education and the Office of the State Treasurer, the report also suggested that Vermont use its bonding capacity to support the construction, at least partially, and recommended directing the state’s economists to study separate, perpetual revenue streams.
Vermont ended its school construction aid program in 2007. Since then, officials say, deferred maintenance has grown significantly, with an estimated $300 million in construction needed each year for the next 21 years if schools were only to replace buildings as they already are.
Jill Briggs Campbell, the education agency’s director of operations, and Ashlynn Doyon, the director of policy in the treasurer’s office, presented the recommendations and findings of the report to lawmakers Thursday morning to the House Committee on Education and the House Committee on Ways & Means.
Briggs Campbell called the findings “step one” of what will likely become a multi-year process.
“We’re hoping to lay out the road map for all of you,” she said.
Vermont’s schools are the second-oldest in the nation, according to the agency, and face declining enrollment. Yet increasingly, schools have become hubs for more than just learning, functioning as community social service centers, leaders say.
“We need these robust, resilient school buildings to be able to serve those needs. Many, many of our school buildings serve as emergency shelters,” Briggs Campbell said, illustrating the need for construction. She also pointed to “mounting evidence” indicating that healthier school buildings lead to better student outcomes.
Legislation last year created the school construction aid task force with the goal of considering funding options for a statewide school construction program, how such a program would be governed, and how to prioritize funding, among other charges.
Informing the task force’s work was Vermont’s school facilities assessment, which estimated Vermont’s schools will need more than $6.3 billion just to fund in-kind replacements in the next 21 years, a number widely considered a significant underestimate.
The task force proposed creating an independent governing board that would oversee school construction project proposals, deciding what percentage of each project the state should subsidize, a model used in Massachusetts.
And though the task force’s report did not solidify criteria the governing board should consider, it did make suggestions.
Among the prioritization criteria proposed, the report suggested the state give consideration to a district’s poverty level and taxing capacity, and that the state should consider providing some money to districts that have engaged in construction projects in the years immediately preceding the yet-to-be-created school construction aid program.
Prioritization could also provide “bonuses” for projects that “align with Vermont’s education priorities,” such as a “newer and fewer” approach to school construction.
“We also know that many, many bonds fail,” Briggs Campbell said. “So we know that the local capacity … is not there.”
The task force also recommended school districts be required to complete master plans and have some requirements in place to help guarantee that they don’t put off maintenance of new buildings.
“If we’re going to do a state construction aid program, we want to ensure that those dollars are going to be invested wisely,” Briggs Campbell said.
Later Thursday afternoon, the House Education Committee met to digest the morning’s report and drum up its immediate action items. Its goal: continue the momentum toward creating a school construction aid program.
The list includes directing the legislative joint fiscal office to begin researching possible perpetual revenue sources, thinking about the future composition of the program’s governing board, pausing PCB testing when the funds allocated to support it near zero, and creating a working group to nail down the specifics of any future aid program.
If all goes according to plan, a working group could present its findings at the beginning of the 2025 legislative session, and the construction aid program could be created in the next biennium.