Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House of Representatives Education Committee on Tuesday approved a trio of bills dealing with school facilities construction, a community schools program and a student literacy initiative.

The school assistance bill passed 10-1, with Rep. Casey Toof, R-Franklin 3-1, the lone no vote.

The bill requires the state Agency of Education to conduct a study of school facilities needs, as well as a study of how neighboring states have funded school building assistance programs.

Vermont’s neighbors all have such programs; the Green Mountain State last offered school building assistance funds in 2007.

Between 2008 and 2019, school districts in Vermont issued about $211 million in bonds for school construction projects, and public school districts have proposed or are planning an estimated $445 million in future school construction projects statewide, according to the bill.

David Epstein, a consultant to the House Education Committee, and Jeff Francis of the Vermont School Superintendents Association, both endorsed passage.

The assessment of facilities needs is “really going to give the state a tremendous amount of information about where the issues are, what the scale of issues are,” said Epstein, an architect.

Toof said he was concerned about implications of additional spending in the bill, as well as funding construction projects at schools “that might not be open in 10 years.”

The literacy bill, H. 101, would set aside $2 million in grant funding, and up to $100,000 per recipient, to help improve literacy instruction in early grades. It passed 11-0.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

The initiative came about last year when the 2019 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed the state’s fourth-grade reading scores had declined over the four previous years. To change that trend, the bill proposes grants to school districts to improve literacy instruction and requires applicants to show how they will do so, and report their progress.

A similar bill is moving forward in the state Senate Education Committee. It proposes granting $3 million in federal funds to school districts for professional development in teaching literacy and creates the position of statewide literacy coordinator in the Agency of Education.

The community schools bill, H. 106, would establish a community schools pilot program at up to 10 districts around the state, and appropriate $1.53 million yearly for that purpose through September of 2024. Community school programs, similar to one operating at Molly Stark School in Bennington, create formal partnerships between the school and social service agencies to provide access to nutrition, health and education resources.

That bill passed 10-2, with Toof and committee member Lawrence Cupoli, R-Rutland 5-2, voting no. Cupoli said he was concerned that after the three-year demonstration period the model would become a continuing expense, coming out of the Education Fund.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kathleen James, D-Bennington 4, said the proposal does not guarantee the programs will continue after their three years are up. She also said local school districts would be making that decision — and that staff running the projects would likely hit the ground running looking for local philanthropic and business support.

“A future legislature will decide if the program has value and should continue, James said. “Nothing about this indicates it rolls into the education fund budget.”

Notably, committee member Rep. Terri Lynn Williams, R-Essex-Caledonia, said she was prepared to vote no. But with emotion in her voice, she changed her vote to yes when the roll call came to her.

“Based on my heart and based on what I just heard from the professionals, and hoping that I’m here in three years to see how this turns out ... because I know I do not want to raise taxes for my people,” Williams said.

All three bills are now likely bound for the House’s financial oversight committees, as they all involve spending.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.