This is a story of the price that comes with political egos and how an open and transparent conversation between members of the same political party in the Vermont Legislature could have spared the taxpayers some money and produced better public policy.

It begins with the oft-discussed PCB testing program currently underway in our schools. The testing program was set up, and funded, so that all Vermont’s schools would be tested for PCBs by 2025. It quickly became apparent the state didn’t have the resources to complete testing by 2025, and it became equally apparent no one knew what the tests would reveal, how much the remediation would cost, and who would pay.

The House Committee on Education thought it prudent to pause the testing until they had answers. The committee devised legislation to do so. It was passed overwhelmingly by committee members and, later, by the House itself. 

The Senate leadership, including the chair of the Committee on Education, refused to consider the House’s proposal to pause the testing. They would not address the implications of the testing or who would be responsible for paying the costs of whatever might happen.

Why? The leadership in the Senate could not countenance the thought of admitting the PCB testing program might be flawed. When Burlington High School was told in 2020 that parts of its structure had PCB levels higher than the state standards allowed, it set off a cascade of events, among them the dislocation of almost a thousand students,  and the $190 million cost of a new school.

Legislators did what they should have done; they devoted the resources necessary to check other schools. That was two years ago. Since then, the conversation has changed. The state’s standard for PCBs was 15 nanograms per cubic foot, whereas the EPA’s standard was 600. The state has since raised its standard to 100 [for high schools]. There is also the recognition that a school can have parts of its building that exceed standards, but other parts that don’t, meaning a school doesn’t have to tear down the entire structure to deal with the issue. [That, perhaps, could have been useful in Burlington’s circumstance. To say the least.]

A number of schools have already been tested with a variety of results. Every school administrator in the state expressed concern about how their school would fare, how they would deal with the potential dislocation of students, and how their budgets might be affected.

The House responded the way it should have, by asking for a pause in testing. The Senate did not. This week members of both houses met in a conference committee in search of a compromise.

What was agreed to was this:

• The testing deadline will be extended from 2025 to 2027, which gives the state the necessary time to do its testing and, hence, perhaps the time to rethink whether the state’s standards are problematic. It also gives schools more time to plan.

• All costs will be absorbed by the state, not the schools. “The grants shall be in an amount sufficient to pay for 100 percent of the school’s investigation, remediation or removal costs … including the costs incurred when necessary under State or federal law to relocate students to a facility during remediation or removal activities.”

So, our schools are relieved. They have more time, and they have the promise the state will pick up any and all costs.

Then, there is this: The language also extends the testing and the promised cash to “approved and recognized independent schools that were constructed or renovated before 1980.”

Wow. That means private schools with large endowments. That means ski and boarding schools [not typically places for the poor or middle class]. That means religious schools. The House conferees argued for public schools only. The Senate insisted on the expansion. 

Is this how the Senate responds to the separation of church and state issue outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Carson v Makin? 

And if the Legislature is now obligating taxpayer dollars to the state’s private and religious schools, can we expect the same expansion when the Legislature passes S. 56, which will pump in roughly $120 million a year into the state’s child care subsidy program? Why would a childcare center be less important to check for PCBs than a skiing academy?

This is not the “oversight” of the taxpayers’ wallets one would expect, or hope for. One wonders where it all leads, and at what costs, and disruption. And all because some political egos could not have an open conversation with their peers and the public.

By Emerson Lynn

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