With the passage of the federal CARES II Act in December, Vermont will see over $100 million coming to our Vermont schools. Known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief II funds, these funds may be used for expenses between March 13, 2020, and September 20, 2023.

Allocations are largely based on a school district’s number of students living in poverty. Because these funds have an end date, it is important that they are used for one-time needs rather than ongoing expenses that cannot be sustained through local or state funds.

House education, which I chair, is beginning to look at challenges that could be addressed with one-time money while also having long term impact. One such issue is the state of our aging school infrastructure.

It is no secret that we have school buildings in trouble. PCBs, found in the soils in Burlington shut down Burlington High School and Tech Center this fall. It is likely these chemicals exist in other schools built around the same time. Students in Lunenburg wear coats in their classroom to stay warm, while a sump pump sits beside a sink in a classroom down the hall.

Health and safety are not the only concerns. A 2019 Report on the Impact of School Infrastructure on Learning https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED604388.pdf indicated better learning environments lead to better learning outcomes. Students trying to learn in a building in obvious disrepair, without access to natural light, poor ventilation or acoustics do not progress as quickly and are more likely to drop out of school. Inadequate access to broadband during COVID immediately split the haves from the have-nots.

A 2007 moratorium on state aid to school construction has contributed to a backlog in projects.

Last year, school districts sought bonds for over $500 million to address infrastructure needs, some of which passed while others did not. These costs ultimate fall to the statewide Education Fund. Without an organized plan going forward, inequity is likely to increase creating further challenges that could end up in costly litigation.

A current bill before the Legislature would allow the state to begin to directly address this problem using one-time federal funds. Doing so would allow Vermont to ascertain in a more equitable fashion, where our needs exist, what our priorities are, and options going forward.

With the influx of Federal funds, the state can more systematically address infrastructure challenges and opportunities brought by declining enrollment, district mergers, rising costs, emerging awareness of health hazards, and the changes in implementing 21st century educational in 20th century buildings. In addition, efforts here could position the State to respond should the Biden administration move forward with a federal stimulus bill addressing school infrastructure.

The Vermont Legislature continues to meet remotely and meetings are available for viewing at legislature.vermont.gov. Rep. Jessica Brumsted and I are doing our best to stay in touch. We can be reached by email at kwebb@leg.state.vt.us or jbrumsted@leg.state.vt.us

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