NEWPORT – Sen. Robert Starr of North Troy and Senator elect John Rodgers brought some good news and bad news to the North Country Union High School Facilities Planning Committee Tuesday evening.
The committee, which is comprised of board members, community members and project officials, is studying potential “no frills” renovations, as well as work to bring the school in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Principal Bill Rivard emphasized the needs with a Powerpoint presentation that showed photographs of some of the troubled areas.
Rodgers, who served eight years on the House Institutions Committee, said that four years ago Vermont was $50 million behind in state aid for school construction. Back then, projections showed that, if the state remained on the same track and did nothing, in three years Vermont would be over $100 million behind.
Rodgers, against the wishes of his committee chair, spoke up and got enough interest of other committee members to institute a moratorium that said, with the exception of consolidation and emergencies, there is no state aid for school construction until the backlog is paid off and there is a plan for moving forward.
“The good news is the money has been set aside; I believe this next fiscal year we will be back to zero,” Rodgers told the committee. “You guys are starting your planning at a very good time.”
The bad news, said Rodgers, is that damage from Tropical Storm Irene, stressed the capital budget, which will remain that way for the foreseeable future. Rodgers, while a representative, saw the handwriting on the wall. Lawmakers did several things that exacerbated the problem, he said. For example, some lawmakers wanted to provide 90 percent to install woodchip boilers in schools.
“That’s great if you’re flush with money, but we weren’t flush with money,” said Rodgers. Everyone wanted a piece of that action, putting the school funding behind fast.
That all led up to the moratorium.”
Rodgers said the state needs dedicated revenue streams for schools. He said many schools in the state are the same age and in the same condition as North Country.
“We need to deal with it,” said Rodgers. “We don’t want our children learning in this kind of system.”
Rodgers urged the committee to make sure everyone gets his or her say. He wants to make sure the renovations last as a long as possible because, in the future, funding will be hard to get. Rodgers said he’s passionate about state aid for school construction and promises to work on that as soon as he returns to the legislature.
“Hopefully by the time you get your plans pulled together, we will have a plan together and be able to help you out and move forward,” said Rodgers.
Up until a month ago, the Department of Education was working on a plan for the capital bill, but then was told to stop because the state might need the money to help recover from Tropical Storm Irene, which displeased Starr enough to express concerns and to speak with Bill Talburt from the Department of Education.
Talburt told Starr about a federal bond program that is almost as good as the state aid program.
Starr suggested to Talburt that the state have a school renovation program instead of a school construction program.
Starr predicts the NCUHS Facilities Planning Committee will be working about a year on the project. He suggested the committee continue to work. Starr thinks the majority of area residents are pro-education. He also said the children and young people are the area's most important assets.
The Department of Education needs to approve any plan in order for it to get financial assistance, Rodgers stressed. He also said he has a hard time believing the community will go for bonding the entire amount even if it is zero percent interest. People are going to want to know how much their tax rate will increase.
If the anticipated Renaissance development comes to fruition, a lot a families will move to the region, Starr said. Some of the things they will look at are the school system and hospital. As it is now, said Starr, North Country school was built more than 40 years ago and doesn’t have the technologies that a 10-year-old school does.
“I’m sure you folks know what we’re up against,” said Rep. Mark Higley of Lowell.
William Johnson of Canaan told the committee that pressures on the state budget are great. Everyone knows the state has declining revenues, Johnson said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin's office has recently indicated the state may be facing a $50 - $70 million shortfall.