Vermont schools desperately need upgrades, but the state offers little help

Concord School. Photo courtesy of Brian Rayburn

At the preK-8 Concord School in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, students went without a gym for the better part of January, February and March.

That meant no basketball, no school play, and no all-school assemblies.

The problem? The prefabricated corrugated metal building was built with a flat roof and no insulation when fuel was dirt cheap, under the assumption that the building’s heat would melt any snow, according Kingdom East Unified School District Superintendent Jennifer Botzojorns.

Now, the building is several decades past its warranty date, and the HVAC is on the fritz. That means that when a winter storm hits, snow quickly piles up on the roof, which in turn, she says, becomes structurally unsound. 

Kingdom East officials put a $24 million bond before voters earlier this summer to make improvements at the Concord School along with the district’s Lunenburg and Burke Town schools. (In Burke, a child’s foot recently went through a rotted floor board in a middle school classroom.)

But the bond vote failed. “Resoundingly,” Botzojorns noted. 

The state once contributed about 30% toward school construction projects, but it suspended the program in 2007. Since then, local districts have been mostly on their own to pay for maintenance and renovations. 

Vermont’s schools are in varying condition. But many are showing their vintage, especially since the last major spate of school construction took place in the 1960s, during the push to create bigger union high schools serving larger geographic regions. 

“I’m hearing increasingly from superintendents that they’d like to see school construction aid restored,” said Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

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Act 60, Vermont’s landmark school funding law, helped equalize school funding across the state, and separated a school district’s tax base from its education tax rate. But more rural and poorer communities often still spend less than their more affluent and more urban peers.

Absent a sweetener from the state, it’s little surprise that local school officials often struggle to convince certain communities to invest in their buildings, Francis said.

“It’s a complicated picture, but when you take construction aid off the table, it does have impacts,” he said.

Montpelier has doled out some money to schools for improvements in recent years, but only for highly targeted policy priorities. It set aside $3 million in a bill this year to test and remediate for lead in drinking water, and it put $4 million toward security upgrades in 2018.

But some state officials are increasingly calling on Vermont to take a more comprehensive look at its educational facilities. Secretary of Education Dan French has said he wants an assessment of every school’s facilities, so the state can get an up-to-date inventory of building needs. French said he’s also participating in conversations the VSA has been hosting on the matter, and he anticipates new policy recommendations will come in the fall.

“Generally, the concerns fall into three tracks: new construction, ongoing maintenance, and thinking about the future and what a 21st century learning environment should look like,” he said in a statement.

In some areas of Vermont, school officials are putting big bonds before voters and getting the green light, despite a lack of state aid. Winooski approved a nearly $58 million bond this year to renovate the district’s preK-12 complex. In 2018, Burlington voters said yes to a $70 million bond to renovate their high school.

But some communities say no — again and again. 

In the Mount Abraham Unified School District, local school officials put bonds to renovate the combined middle and high school building before voters in 2014 (for $32 million), 2017 ($35 million), and 2018 ($29.5 million). All failed. 

The school board reduced the scope of the work each time it put a new proposal before voters in an attempt to rein in the price, said Patrick Reen, the district’s superintendent. But with construction costs rising each year, school officials have struggled to land on a figure taxpayers feel like they can afford. 

“It feels like making the necessary repairs is a little bit more out of reach each year,” he said.

Meanwhile, the building, which dates back to the late 1960s, is increasingly requiring expensive fixes. In 2016, the district replaced the gym floor after a water leak. Next summer, it’ll begin work on a $1.9 million project to fix the locker rooms, after a mold infestation caused the boy’s showers to be quarantined off. 

“I don’t meet too many people who don’t believe significant work needs to be done,” Reen said. “But mostly, what I’m hearing from people is they feel they can’t afford it.”

A bill was introduced last session to lift the school construction aid moratorium, and committees took extensive testimony on facility conditions. Lawmakers are expected to pick the subject up again in January, although few expect legislators to reinstate anything as generous as the state’s suspended capital aid program.

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Whatever lawmakers decide to do, school officials say they’d better act sooner rather than later.

“The problem is not going to go away. And it clearly underlines some of our inequities,” Botzojorns said.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is VTDigger's education reporter. Prior to Digger, Lola covered schools for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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