The state of Vermont has not funded school construction projects for almost 15 years, leaving local taxpayers to completely foot the bill for more than $200 million in school upgrades during that time, Vermont Public Radio reported Jan. 17.
The state Agency of Education admits there is a growing inequity between school districts that can get their projects passed by voters, and those that cannot. In addition, the agency noted there is now a backlog of projects that is potentially causing health and safety issues at the schools with the greatest needs.
At Green Mountain Union High School in Chester, voters recently rejected a $20 million bond proposal to upgrade that facility's aging infrastructure. Todd Parah, the head of facilities at Green Mountain, said it is now up to the district to figure out a way to upgrade the equipment.
"Here in our school district, along with a majority of them in the state of Vermont, we're not at a want-basis — we're going to be at a need-basis," he explained. "The systems are at their end-of-use life, and nobody knows where the money's gonna come from."
Much of the equipment at the Windsor County school was installed back in the early 1970s when Green Mountain first opened.
A report last year from the Agency of Education found that Green Mountain Union High has some of the worst building conditions in the state.
Parah said the voters of the four-town Two Rivers Supervisory Union District rejected the school repair bond because a lot of folks he spoke to were not willing to see their taxes go up to pay for the upgrades.
"The people I talked to were very understanding," he told Vermont Public. "They didn't feel like we were being frivolous with spending money that we didn't need to spend. They just were having a hard time with such a big number for a small community."
The "no" vote in Windsor County happened on the same day that voters in Burlington approved a $165 million bond for their high school.
So, while the students in Chittenden County can look forward to attending a modern, 21st-century facility, the administration in Chester is just hoping that their ancient oil boiler at Green Mountain makes it through one more Vermont winter.
"The communities that have the political capital to pass bond issues will [do so]," said Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French, "and they will always continue to do that. The communities that struggle to do that are going to continue to struggle."
Inequities Growing Among Vermont Districts
Vermont used to provide state money to communities to invest in their schools, using a formula based on square-footage per pupil. But as the projects got more complex, and expensive, the state shut down its construction aid fund in 2007.
As a result, Vermont is now the only state in the northeast without a school construction aid program.
Vermont Public reported that state lawmakers want to change that, and they have asked the Agency of Education to develop a new way to decide who should get state funds if they become available.
French admitted that students cannot receive the same academic services when there is such a wide gap between towns that can afford modern schools and those that cannot.
"You know the policy around school facilities needs to be updated, renewed, [and] reimagined," he added. "I think the piece that's missing, and the piece I'm keenly interested in, is making the connection between school facilities and education opportunities and education quality."
The Agency of Education is currently performing a detailed inspection at every school building in the state to get a better idea of what kind of work is needed, French told Vermont Public.
Small Towns Do Not Have Resources
Mark Tucker, who serves as superintendent of the Caledonia Central Supervisory Union in the state's Northeast Kingdom, said he will be closely watching what happens with the school construction funding debate.
Danville School, a pre-K through 12th grade facility in his district with about 350 students, needs more than $70 million in renovations.
"At this point, we've kind of hit a brick wall with the community for understandable reasons," Tucker told the statewide news service. "The tax impact for some taxpayers could be pretty significant. The bottom line is without any state or federal support, it's all on the backs of the taxpayers here, and I don't think that's going to sell in the community."
He added that in his small town, where there are less than 2,000 taxpayers, there is simply no way the community can take on such a large construction cost by itself.
"This is a rural community, and we don't have the industry base [or] the taxing capacity to raise money like Burlington does," Tucker explained. "There's the industry and businesses clustered in the Chittenden County area, and then there's the rest of the state. We don't have the resources here that they do up there."
A vote on the school construction issue in Danville is at least a year away, but he said without state or federal help, he is not sure how his community will find the money for the needed facility.
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