Vermont’s public schools aren’t quite this bad, but many districts are burdened by years of deferred maintenance and replacement. The situation has gotten worse in the last decade-plus. And it won’t get better anytime soon. And that’s assuming that the Legislature finally takes action on a bill that would lay the foundation for maybe starting to address the problem a few years from now.
The background: Until 2007, the state of Vermont devoted roughly one-third of its capital budget to public school projects. That year, according to the bill’s text, the Legislature “suspended state aid for school construction in order to permit the Secretary of Education and the Commissioner of Finance and Management to recommend a sustainable plan for state aid for school construction.”
Since then, crickets. And a steadily growing list of needs, and many students learning in unsafe conditions. (See: Burlington High School’s precipitate relocation to the former Macy’s Department Store.) To again quote the bill, “the backlog… has resulted in unsafe and unhealthy learning environments and disparities in the quality of education between wealthier communities and communities in need across the state.”
Which, if unaddressed, could spark a lawsuit invoking the precedent of the Brigham decision. Because, duhh, affluent districts can afford to undertake capital projects while poorer districts are left to hang. Take one of those unfortunates, add an opportunistic (or idealistic, if you prefer) lawyer, and the state finds itself in court. In the uncomfortable position of defending inequity.
Two House committees, Education and Corrections/Institutions, have been trying for three years to identify a solution. Which would either involve (1) cutting deeply into the state’s capital budget or (2) finding a substantial pot of money. Last year they started a bill through the Legislature, but it stalled out because of the onset of Covid-19.
So it’s back this year. Bill 21-0782 is a “committee bill” being crafted by House Education, current text available here.
To be clear, the bill doesn’t invest any funds in school construction. No, we have to start these things very small and roll them out slowly.
(21-0782 also notes that Vermont is the only state in the Northeast that doesn’t have a state plan for school infrastructure needs. Hey, let’s hear it for Vermont exceptionalism!)
The bill would establish the “intent” of the Legislature to address this problem. Of course, that’s what they said back in 2007. But let’s say, for shits and giggles, that they really mean it. Here’s the timeline laid out in 21-0782.
By September 1, the Agency of Education and the Department of Buildings and General Services would “issue a request for proposal for a school facilities conditions analysis.” TIt would catalog the needs and establish a “ranking system” to give a sense of the most urgent situations
That analysis would be due by July 1, 2022. The Education Agency would then take the information and create a database of school construction needs.
And now we jump all the way to December 2024, when the Education Agency is due to submit a report to the Legislature including an overview of needs, a recommended funding source, and a look at how other states address this issue.
We’re talking almost four years into the future, and what we’ll have at that point is nothing more than a foundation for potential action. The gears of bureaucracy, as they say, grind on slowly.
So now we’re up to the 2025 Legislature. That’s when, optimistically, lawmakers would take the Ed Agency’s report and enact a plan — with necessary funding — to get the statte back to paying its share of school infrastructure costs.
Let’s say they pass a bill in 2025, why the heck not. The system wouldn’t take effect immediately. So any state funding for school construction wouldn’t even begin until, probably, July 2026.
That’s if everything goes according to plan, hahaha.
We live in hope.