Kingdom East officials highlight infrastructure needs as Welch promotes bill

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., speaks outside Lunenburg Elementary School on Monday about infrastructure problems there and a federal bill he believes could help. Photo by Justin Trombly/VTDigger

LUNENBURG — Officials and educators from the Kingdom East Unified School District spoke with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch on Monday about two schools in need of infrastructure upgrades, which could benefit from a bill the congressman is promoting.

The district group met with the Vermont Democrat outside Gilman Middle School, where they toured the basement and a classroom before heading to the nearby Lunenburg Elementary School. 

“One of the major problems is, they built it within a swamp, really,” district facilities manager Marc Brown said of the Gilman building. “Over the years, they’ve tried many times to remediate that … but, of course, water is relentless, and it’s going to get in somehow.”

Water in the building’s basement — and mold accompanying it — has been a problem by itself. But so has the noise generated by endless remediation.

“That was very distracting,” fifth-grade teacher Lisa Colangelo told Welch inside her classroom at Gilman. “Especially to students with sensory struggles.”

The teacher also described poor heating inside the classroom, saying she and students have to wear heavier clothing inside during the winter because of it. 

At Lunenburg Elementary, Brown pointed out how sump pumps are out in the open in some classrooms, which also create noise that disrupts learning. What’s more: “There’s absolutely no ventilation in this whole side of the building,” Brown said.

Brown said he had been working on a $630,000 request to the state to roll out ventilation systems in three of the district’s schools. “I’ve got three months to get them in, but again, the big companies — we don’t have that in the Northeast Kingdom,” he said. “We have to get them from Burlington or Essex.”

Officials said the bevy of facility problems at both schools has taken teachers’ time away from their duties.

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The lack of proper ventilation takes on even greater priority than normal due to the Covid-19 pandemic, noted Welch. That’s why the state announced a new program earlier this month to use federal CARES Act money toward improving ventilation in schools, as a way to curb transmission of the virus. 

Last summer, Kingdom East officials put a $24 million bond before voters to make infrastructure improvements at three of the eight-town district’s schools. But voters rejected the bond.

Welch and local officials Monday said a new federal bill could help. The House of Representatives on July 1 passed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill, which includes $130 billion for school upgrades. 

“It’s not possible for local taxpayers — who are working hard, not making as much money as they need — to be able to support a bond like $24 million that they’re for but can’t afford,” Welch said. 

“In the House of Representatives, there’s a recognition that the federal government does have to help the local taxpayers and help our local school officials,” he added.

Kingdom East Unified School District facilities manager Marc Brown, right, and Superintendent Jen Botzojorns, center, speak with Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., inside Lunenburg Elementary School on Monday. Photo by Justin Trombly/VTDigger

Senate Republicans, however, have indicated they won’t support the bill.

“This so-called infrastructure bill would siphon billions in funding from actual infrastructure to funnel into climate change policies,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said earlier this month.

“So naturally, this nonsense is not going anywhere in the Senate. It will just join the list of absurd House proposals that were only drawn up to show fealty to the radical left,” he said.

Asked how he sees that trepidation shifting, Welch said that the economic devastation caused by Covid-19 has impacted all states, red and blue, and that his Republican colleagues would be hearing the same needs from their constituents as he does from Vermonters. 

He also cited the Trump administration’s reported plans for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill as something that buoys his outlook.

“I think we’ll get something,” he said, and if not, he believes this bill will be the groundwork for a push for infrastructure investment next year.

Welch has recently made appearances in other parts of the state to promote the bill, dubbed the Moving Forward Act.

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Justin Trombly

About Justin

Justin Trombly covers the Northeast Kingdom for VTDigger. Before coming to Vermont, he handled breaking news, wrote features and worked on investigations at the Tampa Bay Times, the largest newspaper in Florida. He grew up across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where he worked for The Buffalo News, the Glens Falls Post-Star and the Plattsburgh Press Republican. He studied English and political science at the University of Rochester.

Email: [email protected]

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