Many Vermont schools showing their age

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(Host) Many of Vermont’s schools were built a generation ago, and they’re showing their age.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, the cost of renovating and updating these aging buildings is an increasing challenge for local school boards and for the state.

(Zind) Teacher, students and administrators have come and gone over the last 40 years but one part of Vermont’s education system hasn’t changed: the schools.

(Hilgendorf) “Many of these buildings need significant renovation. In most cases they haven’t had a good new heating and ventilation system since they were built. The thermal envelope is worn out, windows are shot.”

(Zind) That’s Cathy Hilgendorf. She’s School Construction Consultant for the Vermont Department of Education.

Hilgendorf says in coming years, the need to repair and renovate Vermont’s schools will challenge the state’s budget and the pocketbooks of local taxpayers.

While the taxpayer must approve bonding for school renovations, the state is also partner in most projects, typically paying 30% of the cost. For many years, the state’s share came to about $10 million annually. The money was spread among six to eight projects every year. But there’s a lot of renovation work that will be needed in the future.

For example none of Vermont’s technical centers have been renovated, and they were all built in the early 1970s.

(Hilgendorf) “Demand for these projects and, unfortunately, the cost of these projects has risen, and it becomes certainly a bigger problem or an issue for the Legislature.”

(Zind) While much of the renovation work involves replacing roofs and septic systems and making schools handicapped accessible, other projects reflect our changing approach to education.

The school board of Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon is poised to ask voters to bond for their share of the $10 million cost of a number of renovations including upgrading electrical and other aging systems in the 46-year-old building. School board chair Connie Carroll says there are also plans to alter the main entrance of the school to allow office staff to see who’s entering and leaving.

(Carroll) “That’s not something that anyone used to give any thought to years ago, but since Columbine and since Essex and all of the other unfortunate incidents that can and do happen in schools, you like to know who’s entering your building.”

(Zind) The state has already agreed to pay 30% of the costs of the Otter Valley renovations.

But Cathy Hilgendorf of the education department says in the future, there may be some delays in the state’s ability to come up with its share of the money.

Despite a one time, 80% increase in state funding last year, Hilgendorf expects state funding levels to remain close to what they’ve been in the past even as costs rise and more schools need renovation work.

For the first time schools may have to wait for the state to pay its share.

(Hilgendorf) “This next year it’s very possible that all of the projects ready and entitled to receive their state aid in FY ’07 may not get it right away.”

(Zind) To get work started, school districts may have to take out loans while they wait for the state money. Paying interest on those loans will be an added cost, but it’s still cheaper than delaying a project.

The state also takes a dim view of deferred maintenance, warning school districts that it won’t help pay for any projects that are the result of postponed work.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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