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School closures this week highlight dire infrastructure needs – VTDigger



Randolph Union High School on Thursday, May 13, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Water, silt and sediment rushed into the basement of Orleans Elementary around 4 p.m. on Monday.

Liquid emerged from the floors, the sprinklers, the stairwells and the elevator shaft.

“It came in pretty fast and furious,” Penny Chamberlin, superintendent of Orleans Central Supervisory Union, said, describing the water main break. “So now what we’re looking at is trying to assess the extent of the damage.”

Last year, heavy rains flooded the 1922-built elementary school in July and again in December, she said. But Monday’s crisis, mere minutes of torrential water that will close the school through at least next week, was the worst yet. 

Other schools in Randolph and Fair Haven have similarly suffered closures this spring due to ailing infrastructure. 

A mold issue at Glover Elementary, also in Orleans Central, led school officials to seal off a classroom to contain a mold problem this year, yet another of the district’s immediate construction needs.

“Your schools need help,” Chamberlin said, calling for state support, “and Vermont needs to have a plan that’s well thought out and takes into consideration small rural communities in addition to more urban areas.”

School building closures in Orleans Central — and statewide — highlight ailling education infrastructure. Beset with the second oldest building stock in the country according to the Vermont Agency of Education, the state’s schools need roughly $6 billion in facility improvements in the next two decades, a number widely considered an underestimate. 

Plus, state mandated testing has discovered toxic PCBs in some schools, forcing expensive mitigation and remediation. 

Vermont hasn’t provided state funding for school construction since the Great Recession. Lawmakers hope to renew aid soon, and they passed a bill this year tasking a small group with outlining a reimagined program. But money is years away, and state leaders must still answer critical questions, such as where will funds come from, and who should get first dibs? 

Forced to raise money locally, school districts have struggled to pass construction bonds, kicking the can on large-scale renovations. 

For Chamberlin, state aid is a must if Orleans Central is going to meet its construction needs — from battling mold at the Glover school and repairing Orleans Elementary’s flooded basement, to replacing mechanical systems at schools across the district that have reached the end of their useful lives.  

Local residents can “absolutely not” afford big school construction bonds, she said. “They barely are able to take care of just being able to operate their schools, and the level of maintenance, short term and long term, that’s been needed has been very difficult financially.”

Chamberlain said the Northeast Kingdom community she serves would likely need 70 to 80% state support for school construction projects — much higher than the 30% floated in the Legislature this year. 

Orleans’ water woes weren’t the only infrastructure problem to cancel class this spring. At the end of March, a broken fuel line closed Fair Haven Union Middle and High School for multiple days, the Rutland Herald reported. And this week, an electrical failure at Randolph Union High School shut down Orange Southwest School District schools on Wednesday, after the buildings lost access to internet and phone lines. 

An underground electrical switch connected to a generator failed Tuesday afternoon, cutting power to the high school, said Heather Lawler, Orange Southwest’s assistant superintendent. 

“(The switch) is connected to internal systems that failed in a chain response because they weren’t modern.” she said. 

And once crews began to confront the initial problem, they encountered further issues, Lawler noted, calling the effort “a massive repair, replacement and upgrade.”

The switch has since been replaced, as has new cable running to the school, but though the district’s other schools reopened Thursday, the high school building remained closed. 

Facilities issues are not new to Orange Southwest. Last school year, a boiler problem shut off heat to Randolph Union, forcing a winter school closure. The school has also contended in recent years with a leaky water system, according to Lawler. 

“As we do the repairs, we find more, because we’re dealing with a 60 year old problem,” she said.

A report from the Vermont Agency of Education, which assessed 384 school buildings, found that Orange Southwest’s were in the worst condition of any district in the state. 

“It worries me that we will continue to invest taxpayer funds into a building that we’re simply waiting for the next challenging physical need to occur in,” said Lisa Manning Floyd, Randolph Union’s principal. 

On Thursday, school staff planned to use the local town office, Gifford Medical Center and Brunswick School, a nearby private school, to host classes and exams, according to Manning Floyd, who praised the community’s support. 

But relying on goodwill is not a permanent solution. Both Manning Floyd and Lawler underscored the need for state assistance. 

Amid the soaring cost of education and associated rise in property taxes, state aid, Lawler suggested, is the only path toward lifting the district out of a pattern of infrastructure crises.

“We are concerned with the current tax environment we’re facing … that it will be very difficult to pass a bond,” she said. “We want to compel the state to really restore funding opportunities for new buildings.”

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