Public Assets Institute > Blog > A harder road for school construction

A harder road for school construction

Last Tuesday, communities across Vermont voted on school budgets (among other things). Historically, Vermonters have provided the financial resources that school boards have indicated our kids need to thrive in school—and preliminary results this year suggest voters passed over 90 percent of the school budgets up for approval on Town Meeting Day.

In addition to voting yea or nay on the annual school budget, five school districts—Barre Unified Union, Canaan Schools, Champlain Valley, Slate Valley Unified, and South Burlington—faced a second separate school budget decision: whether to fund school construction needs.

For Barre, Canaan, and Champlain Valley, these bond proposals were modest, meant to cover the costs of some routine maintenance, and voters approved them. But South Burlington and Slate Valley were asking voters to support the construction of new buildings—$209.6 million in South Burlington and $59.5 million for Slate Valley.

These projects would have been paid for over 30 years with long-term bonds. District taxpayers cover the annual debt service on the bonds—principal and interest—in each year’s school budget, which increases the school tax rate. South Burlington’s rate would have been about $.43 higher on average over the bond term to cover the annual debt service. Both of these more ambitious proposals failed.

The decision that voters faced last week was a lot harder than it used to be. Until 2007 the state paid 30 percent of the cost of approved school construction projects. But since then, communities have had to rely on their town’s school tax rates to cover the cost. School taxes are regressive, hitting lower and middle income taxpayers harder than those at the top. As a result, school construction borrowing slowed over the following decade.

Like the state’s pension obligations or the cleanup of Lake Champlain, this is an example of the state not making timely, critical investments, and then facing bigger challenges down the road.

Since these two projects didn’t pass, the districts will have to find another way to address the real construction needs they’re facing or rethink those needs. School buildings last only so long, and the need for school infrastructure improvements across the state has become increasingly clear. While just five school districts had bond votes on Tuesday, nearly $300 million more in school construction projects are in the planning stages across the state over the next five years. And the fact that Vermont has the fifth lowest per-pupil school debt in the country is evidence that our current level of investment is inadequate.

School districts have understandably been putting projects on hold since 2007, and now Vermont is facing a backlog of school construction needs that local voters are struggling to meet. The results of these votes and the history behind them point to a larger question we need to ask: Is Vermont prepared to make the level of investment today needed to ensure that the state is livable 10, 25, or 50 years from now?

Posted by Julie Lowell on March 11, 2020 at 12:29 pm

5 Responses to “A harder road for school construction”

  1. Norm Etkind says:

    While we have some very fine schools we also have many with significant deferred maintenance needs and that lack ADA compliance, let alone not meeting 21st Century needs.
    I’ve visited 501 school buildings at 341 schools in Vermont when performing my energy assessments and can say that there are many that need expensive renovation.
    Some of these are from poorer towns that had bad school buildings prior to Act 60 and then construction aid ended in 2007.
    I think there are better ways than bonding through the capital bill to help them.

  2. Liz Curry says:

    If nothing else, it would make a lot of sense for the state to fund energy efficiency retrofit and renewable energy system costs. This would alleviate utility operating costs on school budgets, as well as create healthier buildings, thereby creating a bit of downward pressure on the state ed fund. The state treasurer should take note that bond underwriters and insurers are increasingly focused on the impact of the climate crisis on government infrastructure so using bond debt for resiliency strategies actually strengthens the way Wall St. looks at VT use of bond debt. We could get ahead of this by abandoning our fixed mindset and phasing different district’s projects.

  3. Julie Lowell says:

    Liz, thanks for this perspective. Energy needs and environmental impact are an important piece of the conversation.

  4. Julie Lowell says:

    Thanks for sharing your personal observations of the needs, Norm. It is a helpful part of the conversation as solutions are sought.

  5. John Dyck says:

    I think the voters did the right thing. Repair and reuse should be our course of action, and adding bricks and mortar to educational institutions has not improved quality in my lifetime.

    Teachers should be consulted more about how to use tax funds. Good teachers can get a lot done in any environment. Ensuring that teacher pay and other benefits are adequate and stable should always be the educational priority.

    Vermont should think more about intellectual infrastructure, rather than concrete infrastructure. Education at the three state universities (Castleton, Lyndon, and Johnson) should be broad and deep in art, music, literature, history, mathematics, and science. Vermont should fund this much better than it does now, and attract professors who are interested in teaching the fundamental subjects, rather than focusing on research. Instead of many courses in how to teach, consider sending prospective students to Finland or other countries where teachers are particularly highly educated. But don’t spend money on more buildings at colleges.