A Step Forward on School Buildings

Students’ success depends on a variety of factors:  their aptitude, motivation, and morale as well as their attendance and alertness; supportive parents and community; quality teachers and administrators; and facilities that are safe, healthy, and designed for effective learning. Studies have shown that facilities in disrepair undermine students’ ability to retain and recall information. Inadequate heating, cooling, and ventilation adversely affect student performance, health, and attendance. Poor acoustics challenge students’ short-term memory and speech perception, as well as their relationships with their peers and teachers. Classrooms with limited natural light degrade student performance on standardized tests. And a poor learning environment does not just hurt students. Education facilities in disrepair with substandard air quality, inadequate lighting and acoustics, and spaces designed for outmoded instructional practices may cause low teacher morale and make it difficult to retain high quality, motivated instructors.

Investment in school infrastructure, in short, is an investment in improved educational outcomes. School districts throughout Vermont are, indeed, making those investments. Between 2008 and 2019, they issued approximately $211 million in bonds for school construction projects. In 2020, they planned and proposed an estimated $445 million in bonding for future school construction projects statewide. Over the past decade, the South Burlington district has spent approximately $750,000 annually for facility maintenance and improvement and also issued a $6 million bond for improvement projects. In 2020, after several years of evaluating its infrastructure, the district proposed a $209 million bond to build a new combined middle and high school. Voters rejected this proposal and the district continues to evaluate continuing facility needs.

The State used to provide financial assistance for school construction. But this aid, provided through the State’s bonding authority, has been suspended since 2007. In past Bienniums, I have sponsored bills to lift the moratorium on State school construction aid so that Vermont would no longer be the only state in the Northeast without a school construction program. Though these bills did not pass, they helped push the conversation to the forefront. Sometimes tackling significant problems takes more than one Biennium. And this year, the legislature took an important step to address the State’s school infrastructure needs.

After days of testimony, the House Education Committee passed H.446, which would eventually be signed into law as Act 72. The legislature found that “the backlog in the State’s school construction projects has resulted in unsafe and unhealthy learning environments and disparities in the quality of education, including between wealthier communities and communities in need across the State.” It is not surprising that many of Vermont’s school buildings, which were built decades ago, are aging and in urgent need of repair.

The bill’s stated goal is “to address the needs and conditions of the State’s school buildings in order to create better learning environments for Vermont’s students and increase the equity in the quality of education around the State.” The work begins with an update of the State’s school facility standards and a statewide assessment and inventory of all school buildings to inform the Agency of Education and legislature on facilities’ needs and the costs to meet those needs. From this inventory, the legislature will be able to prioritize schools with the highest needs for future school construction funding. By January of 2023, the Secretary of Education will provide to the legislature an analysis of the challenges and opportunities of State funding for public school construction projects and recommendations for a funding source for such projects.

Not all aid for infrastructure improvements will need to wait for this planning process to conclude and a funding source to be identified. For the short term, the bill establishes a grant program for renewable and efficient heating systems administered by Efficiency Vermont for the improvement or repair of existing systems. Also, to help ensure that the school buildings do not harm the health of their occupants, the bill requires each public and independent school in the State to perform radon measurements by June 2023. Additional time for this testing is granted to schools that are in the process of implementing indoor air quality improvement projects. Act 72 takes the first step towards meeting the goal of ensuring that our school buildings are well-maintained, energy-efficient, safe, and healthy places that meet the needs of 21st century education and technology.