Winooski’s massive school reconstruction project is now costlier than expected and running behind schedule, but officials said the school district expects to be able to pay the bills with no added burden on taxpayers.
The new Normand Street campus, expected to open at the end of October, will double the capacity of the previous building and include state-of-the-art security and energy upgrades, school officials said.
“We have geothermal, we have solar and we’re expecting some real savings in terms of energy,” said Superintendent Sean McMannon.
Construction started in mid-2020 and includes 75,000 square feet of new construction and a facelift for 125,000 square feet of the existing buildings, which are structurally sound. However, indoor systems like electrical, air, heat, plumbing and other mechanical features needed upgrades, according to a 2018 facility evaluation report.
Voters approved borrowing up to $57.8 million in 2019 but pandemic-related delays and expenditures have driven the cost up to $61.6 million — about 6.6% over the approved bond amount.
However, Covid-19 — which arrived in Vermont in March 2020 — also elicited new funding opportunities that dropped the amount Winooski had to borrow to $55 million, officials told VTDigger this week.
“So Covid’s been a tale of good news and bad news for us,” said Nicole Mace, finance and operations director for the Winooski school district. “I think that has actually positioned the district well to navigate both the period of uncertainty but also to take advantage of a lot of funding opportunities available and historically low interest rates.”
The district is looking at a record-low interest rate of 2.25% over 30 years for the loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. Other funding sources include $4.7 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund reimbursements for HVAC materials, $644,000 in congressional earmarks to fund an in-school health clinic, $100,000 raised by the Heart of Winooski Foundation and $1.06 million in available district funds, according to a memo Mace sent to district officials on June 8.
Costs rose because of pandemic supply-chain disruptions, previously undiscovered underground conditions, asbestos remediation and the need to replace all underground plumbing, according to the memo.
In partnership with ReArch and TruexCullins, the district designed a new campus that will almost double the old footprint and include a new roof with solar panels, as well as energy-efficient windows, lighting and heating and cooling systems.
“We’re working feverishly over the summer to get the renovation of the elementary school completed for the opening of school,” McMannon said. “Then the final pieces are the district office, the support services office and the library.”
The school district serves more than 850 students of diverse backgrounds. More than half identify as Black, Indigenous or people of color. Additionally, 97% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 47% are enrolled in the English Language Learning program.
The 75,000 square feet of new space will include a performance arts area, gymnasium, library media center, cafe, flexible learning spaces to support students outside classrooms, STEM labs, middle school and elementary school wings. Renovations will remake about 125,000 square feet of existing space.
The new campus is designed to accommodate a growing school district and an integrated curriculum from pre-K to high school, said school board member Alexander Yin.
“There’s real intentionality of this design of the school to go along with the pedagogy and also the understanding that education isn’t about just putting the student in the classroom and learning, but there are other impacts of what happens in school,” he said.
The school will have a wide, bright entrance with a new health center, multilingual liaison office, library, cafe and connections to the elementary and middle/high school wings.
“When we come back in the fall, we will have the nicest school building in the state of Vermont,” Mace said. “It’s going to be something that the community is going to be really proud of and so I’m excited about that and really just very appreciative of everyone's patience.”
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