MONTPELIER — George W. Bush was president of the United States the last time state of Vermont offered a financial assistance program to its public K-12 school districts for building construction projects.
That was two governors ago, in 2007, when the Vermont Legislature suspended state aid for school construction to allow then-Gov. Jim Douglas’s administration to study and recommend “a sustainable plan for state aid for school construction.”
On Thursday, the House Education Committee continued efforts to restore the state school building assistance program. The panel heard testimony on a proposal for a statewide study of school building needs, and an accompanying study of how the state would pay for it.
The price tag could be high. An informal study undertaken in 2019 by the Vermont Superintendents Association found that the state’s public K-12 districts had $565 million worth of projects either proposed or planned.
In the meantime, school districts either bonded their own projects, to the tune of $350 million between 2008 and 2019, or kicked the can down the road.
“The reality is we have aging infrastructure with declining enrollment, and we’ve been investing in people and programs and not in buildings. That caught up to us,” said Bill Anton, superintendent of the Windham Central Supervisory Union.
The Education Committee tackled school building construction assistance last year. But like many legislative initiatives, the COVID-19 pandemic brought that work to a screeching halt. The committee, which includes state Rep. Kathleen James, D-Bennington 4, is in the process of updating a new bill based on last year’s efforts.
One change made Thursday followed a question from James as to why the bill staggered the completion deadlines for a need assessment and a financing study, and why the latter was not due until 2024. The committee agreed that they should happen concurrently, and moved up the dates.
James said running the funding and needs studies at the same time makes sense, because building projects will only get more expensive with time.
“We already know the scope of cost — it’s big. So we need to figure out how to pay for it and figure out how other states paid for it ASAP,” James said.
James said testimony presented last year, particularly regarding current conditions in the Kingdom East School District in Lyndon, made it clear that school building needs are an equity issue.
“Some of the testimony from Kingdom East was pretty shocking,” she said.
In the Windham Central Supervisory Union, Anton said the dollars for paying down construction bonds simply don’t exist.
“You could never consider these things when you’re going to a community already hit taxing capacity,” Anton said. “You can’t do that to your community. Once state aid went away it was very difficult to do anything major.”
Anton said there are “immediate” needs at Leland & Gray Union High School in Townshend, and at Marlboro Elementary School, which educates children through grade 8.
At Marlboro, “We don’t have a proper kitchen, a proper middle school infrastructure for science, good lighting, place you can do art,” he said.
“The things we expect to have in our school buildings aren’t possible without including state money ... it’s too great a burden on an individual community.”