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Vermont Lawmakers Are Foiled by Forethought

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Vermont legislators aiming to rewrite the state's school-construction law have tripped up on the law of unintended consequences.

About a year ago, lawmakers moved to limit the state's guaranteed funding for school construction, saying Vermont could no longer afford its traditionally generous aid. But when the drafting of a new law was scheduled for the 1996 legislative session, dozens of school districts had more than a year to seize the chance to pass construction-bond issues under the current law.

The legislature's effort to save money instead sparked a ballot-box stampede that will run up Vermont's school-construction obligation to an estimated $85 million. That's roughly equivalent to the state's total payout over the past decade to build schools.

Key lawmakers now say they may have made a mistake last year when they voted to "sunset" the law this year, on March 15. That move gave districts plenty of time to plan and pass bond issues under the current law.

More than 80 bond votes have been scheduled in the 75 days before next month's deadline, according to state officials. In a single year, there are usually only 60 or 70 such votes.

"Anybody who was even just thinking about a project, saying 'maybe we should do construction sometime in the next five years,' is pushing it through now," said Jeb Spaulding, the chairman of the Senate education committee.

Only a few of these districts are likely to see their money soon, however. The legislature probably will not earmark more than $20 million a year for school construction, Mr. Spaulding said, as the state has limited authority to issue bonds for construction projects.

Worse, the building frenzy has the potential to inflate construction prices and drive project bids higher than what districts can pay with their bond proceeds.

"It's not unusual to see costs go up 20 or 30 or 40 percent" when contractors are flooded with work, said John Rahill, a school architect and partner in the Black River Design firm in Montpelier. "We won't know exactly how stupid this was until a year from now."

Lawmakers, of course, thought they were being smart when they set out to rewrite the school-construction law. The existing law guarantees that the state will pay at least 30 percent of the costs of state-approved projects. (See Education Week, April 19, 1995.)

While that guarantee has cost Vermont only about $9 million a year since 1985, shortfalls in the program loomed in the early 1990s as demand for new schools ballooned. Districts launched ambitious construction programs to accommodate a growing K-12 enrollment and an inventory of school buildings that is almost a generation old.

Last year, the state approved nearly $28 million in district construction projects, $10 million more than the legislature earmarked for the program.

Revved-Up Planning

When lawmakers announced that they would head off such deficits by rewriting the construction law, many local school boards shifted their building plans into high speed.

Officials in the 560-student Blue Mountain Union district began construction planning in 1991, but they rushed through the final stages of their $6.2 million bond issue--including the required public hearing and comment period--to get it on the ballot on March 14, one day before the new law is scheduled to take effect.

"The state sure threw this into a tizzy," said Bruce Stevens, the chairman of the Blue Mountain school board. "I think they overreacted to the situation."

State officials noticed that some school boards were in such a rush to get state approval of their projects that they asked architects to draw up plans before conducting any surveys to determine needs or other preliminary work, reversing the traditional design process.

In some instances, boards have moved quickly and have not thought through plans, said Doug Chiappetta, a manager for the state's school-improvement team.

Compounding the problem for lawmakers was the fact that the usually stingy Vermont voters signed off on almost all of the bond issues.

In any given year, half of the bond votes usually fail, Mr. Chiappetta said. "But I can only think of two or three that have failed this year."

Winning Leverage

The threat of a new, less generous state deal proved to be vital leverage in winning votes, officials in several districts said. In the 2,000-student West Washington district, voters approved three separate bond issues last fall, including two that previously had been defeated.

"It motivated the voters to make up their minds," said Sandy Gallup, the district's business manager.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, are hammering out a new law that would dole out state aid first to those districts with construction needs related to health or safety issues.

Whether poor districts would get more support than rich ones is still being debated.

After the $85 million backlog in construction aid is paid, state projections show that school-building needs should drop to normal levels.

"Once this is done," said Mr. Spaulding, "it's going to be a long time until we have to do this again."

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