• Welch hopes bill will give $15 million boost to Vt. schools
     | June 06,2008

    MONTPELIER – An amendment successfully offered by U.S. Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont would allow schools to use federal construction money to pay for renewable energy projects such as wood-fired heating plants.

    The amendment to a school modernization bill was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives by an overwhelming 409-5 vote and would mean $15 million of federal money could be used by schools in Vermont, including for the installation such alternative energy systems.

    The money is needed.

    The state of Vermont is roughly $45 million behind on paying money it owes to local districts for school construction, nearly half of which is for alternative energy projects, mostly converting to wood heat.

    If the federal money does come down to Vermont and other states it will go to new projects, not replace the state money already promised. However, there are schools in the state that would like to install such projects but are delaying because of the backlog of funding.

    "The cost of fuel is starting to kill the budgets of our schools and our families," Welch said by telephone Thursday. Because of the growing cost of fuel oil the 35 schools in Vermont that have installed such systems are saving nearly 60 percent on their bills, he said.

    "It has saved a million gallons of fuel oil," he said.

    The cash-strapped state has in recent years stopped offering to help pay for any more school construction projects, but still owes $20 million to local districts for alternative energy projects, most have already been begun or completed. That means districts have taken out loans and are paying interest waiting for the state money.

    "Most of them are already done. There are one or two that are still under construction," said Cathy Hilgendorf, school construction coordinator for the Vermont Department of Education. It is important to remember that while the state does owe the money to districts – and should pay them – the state-local split on the program is quite generous – roughly 90 percent paid by the state for most of the projects, she said.

    Schools from Barre to Brattleboro have installed such systems, some of which the state still owes.

    "Many of these we owe over $1 million of aid to," Hilgendorf said.

    But there are still more schools in the state that would like to install such systems.

    "There are some more that are interested," Hilgendorf said.

    Norman Etkind, energy manager program director for the Vermont Superintendents Association agreed.

    "Several of the schools have been asking about their renewable options," said Etkind. "It would be a good way to reduce their energy use, but also as an educational tool. The schools that have the wood systems in place right now are very happy with them and they are saving money."

    "There is a lot more demand out there," Etkind concluded.

    Fair Haven Union High School is one of those schools that would like to install such a system – if there was money for it.

    "I believe that the cost savings are so clear and the long-term benefits so clear I would love to be able to pursue it," said principal Brett Blanchard. "We have a well thought out plan. Now it is a question of whether it is going to sit there for lack of funds."

    The Danville School is one of those waiting for its share of federal money for the new wood chip heating plant it has installed.

    The school wanted to reduce its environmental impact, and rely more on alternative energy.

    And "we were trying to take advantage of this great construction reimbursement," said Principal Meg Powden. According to the Department of Education, Danville is still owed roughly $1 million in state money.

    "There was some expectation there would be some lag time," before the school was reimbursed, Powden said. "The concern is that it is going to be much longer than we anticipated."

    Since starting up the new heating plant in February – maintenance workers and school board members pitched in to adjust the new system – the school has already begun saving money compared to its old heating oil bill, Powden added.

    "It has been great," she said.

    In part Vermont and other states are in tough times because the federal government has not done enough to help, Welch said. The amendment he offered is one step to deal with that, he said.

    "We are going to save money. It is going to help the local economy and it is also helping to address global warming," Welch said.

    The underlying bill, H.R. 3021 The 21st Century Green High-Performing Public School Facilities Act, passed the House Wednesday by a vote of 250-164. The fate of the $6.4 billion bill in the Senate is not certain, but with the strength of the vote in the House the bill and the amendment stand a good chance of winning approval, Welch said.

    "We are committed to it in the House," he said. "There was overwhelming support for this amendment."

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