By Curt Peterson
Their first meeting in 10 months brought members of the Windsor Central Unified Union School District’s (WCUUSD) new build working group up to speed regarding developments and status since last spring.
The group’s goal is a new $75 million middle and high school to be built at the current campus in Woodstock. Designed to accommodate 700 students, the project, in planning since 2016, might be completed in five years.
Group co-chair Ben Ford of Woodstock said the primary application for project approval by the Agency of Education may get favorable attention because WCUUSD has already performed important steps that usually follow submission.
The project has to be “shovel-ready” before the district solicits construction bids, which will require site design necessary for Act 250 and other applicable permits, Jason Drebitko, local consultant, said. Further building design development will also be required. According to Drebitko, Leigh Sherwood, principal of Lavalley Brensinger Architects, said “shovel ready” status will take approximately 11 months. No cost estimates are available yet.
WCUUSD Superintendent Sherry Sousa said she will, assuming board approval, review detailed architects’ drawings with district administrators and department heads to gather design ideas with working conditions in mind.
Raising construction funds will be a challenge, Ford admitted. WCUUSD will avoid trying to use a bond to raise total funding, as several other districts have failed using that strategy.
State funding has been on hold for a few years, there are no obvious federal sources, and the project doesn’t qualify for ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding, Ford said. The group is looking at the U.S. Department of Agriculture low-interest loan available for rural school districts to fill in some of the gap. The onus for remaining funds will be on private fundraising.
The Woodstock Economic Development Commission provided $50,000 that the district hopes to use to hire Marlena McNamee, a part-time fundraising consultant.
Costs to date have been paid with money donated for specific parts of the project. As of this moment, Ford said, no private donations have been raised for the building itself.
The group spent quite a bit of time discussing their “net-zero” energy goal for the new building as a private pledge of $500,000 is dedicated to sustainability.
The upfront cost of solar installation and geothermal energy wells can be avoided by partnering with investors, Matt Stout of Woodstock said. An investor could own the facility, and gets the generous government tax credits available, while the district, which isn’t eligible for the tax credits, leases the facility from the investor.
“We might pay the going rate, or even a little more, for the electricity,” Jim Fenn, WCUUSD director of finance and operations, explained. “But we would be saving the delivery costs because the power is being produced on our site.”
Net-zero energy sources pay for themselves with savings in five years, according to Fenn.
Meanwhile, the decades-old building is deteriorating quickly. District buildings and grounds director Joe Rigoli said the current complex recently suffered $80,000 in damages from the cold weather.
Sousa said newly-installed air flow units improved conditions, but are noisy and make teaching and hearing the students difficult.
Jim Haff of Killington, the chair of the district buildings and grounds committee, warned the group about consequences from failing to repair and maintain the middle/high school. If maintenance is deferred for another five years while the new facility is built, the building might fail and have to be shut down, Haff said, adding that the board refused to listen to his committee’s cry for investments needed to keep the older building functioning.
“When something is broken, you have to fix it,” Haff said. “You can’t just put it on hold.”