Vt. report details gaping school infrastructure needs

Published: Apr. 21, 2022 at 4:46 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - A new state report reveals the infrastructure needs of Vermont’s public schools, sparking new conversations on how to preserve aging buildings and how to pay for improvements.

The asphalt track at Montpelier High School is the original one from 1973 and is a good example of a facility that landed the Montpelier Roxbury district near the top of the list for overdue upgrades.

With track season now underway, the district will soon spend $1.5 million from its reserves to get the ball rolling to replace the 50-year-old track with a state-of-the-art surface. It’s just one of many upgrades the district has spearheaded.

“We’ve had to take out some bonds at our high school, the middle school, and one of our elementary schools,” said MRSD School Board Chair Jim Murphy.

Overdue upgrades like this were laid bare in a new report from the state. The analysis commissioned by lawmakers surveyed 305 schools and 384 buildings. It measured building conditions through a facilities condition index on a scale of zero to 100% with the higher percentages indicating the lifespan already used up. Out of the state’s 60 school districts and supervisory unions, 24 school districts had an index over 75% percent and eight had an index over 80%.

“We’re going to have to elevate school facilities as a priority and make that happen in an equitable way,” said Education Secretary Dan French.

Vermont used to fund school infrastructure projects but in 2007 lawmakers put a moratorium on state construction aid. Since then, all projects have been left up to local communities to fund through bonds and local taxes.

“It is past due that the General Assembly turn to a new sustainable program to support school infrastructure needs, as reflected in this report,” said Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

But the need for school infrastructure funding has also recently taken another unexpected twist - the discovery of PCBs in Burlington High School and hundreds of other pre-1979 buildings where the carcinogen was common in building supplies. Lawmakers have allocated millions to test for PCBs but as of now, there’s no money allocated for remediation.

Back in Montpelier, Jim Murphy says that conversation is looming, too. But he says learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom, it also happens in school theatres, baseball fields, and tracks. “Without good, solid infrastructure, good quality education becomes a lot harder,” he said.

Vermont has a $90 million surplus in the General Fund this year that lawmakers are still deliberating over how to use. Murphy says some of that cash could be spent on facilities

The Agency of Education is now taking some of the information in the report and publishing it in an online portal so that local districts can begin conversations about what school infrastructure in their districts should look like.

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