BENNINGTON — The Agency of Education has put the Bennington School District's energy renovation project on hold by refusing to approve the application for the project.
Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe, in a letter to the school district's board of directors, said the district was found to be in violation of 16 V.S.A. § 3448f, which covers energy performance contracting.
"Upon a review of all the relevant documents and information," wrote Holcombe, "I find that the Bennington School District has not followed the statutory process for energy performance contracting, in regard to the proposed contract between the Bennington School District and Energy Efficient Investments, Inc. The record shows that the District has not made use of assistance from Efficiency Vermont, the School Energy Management Program of the (Vermont Superintendents Association), and other similar entities in developing the (request for proposals), or evaluating the vendor's proposal, and the ultimate selection of the vendor."
"These critical steps in statute," she continued, "are there to ensure a transparent process supported by independent experts that can assure the public that their taxpayer dollars will be wisely spent and payments to the contractor will reflect actual energy or operational cost-saving results. Here, the cost of the proposed contract is likely to run well into seven figures by any reasonable estimate. The public needs to be assured, especially in a case like this, that every due diligence step contemplated in law has been taken, prior to moving forward."
Holcombe said the BSD has the choice to either follow the bidding process as laid out in 16 V.S.A. § 559, or restart the energy performance contracting process from the beginning, this time acting in alignment with 16 V.S.A. § 3448f.
The BSD went before the voters this March to approve a $4,461,000 bond with a term of 15 years and a 2.63 percent interest rate, to pay for the improvements, which would have taken place in all three BSD schools. While the specific improvements done would vary from school to school, in total, the improvements would include replacing the heaters, and installing double-pane windows, new high-efficiency boilers, LED lighting throughout the schools, and new digital controls. The board had hoped to complete the renovations this summer.
"With these upgrades the district is projected to save $150,000 in energy and maintenance expenses and receive over $24,000 in rebates from Efficiency Vermont next year. After the initial bond interest payment, the projected net savings will create a surplus of over $80,000, which by law will be used to reduce taxes," the board wrote in a guest column in the Banner before Town Meeting day.
The portion of the law that Holcombe says the BSD is out of compliance with seems to be the following passage: "In developing the request for proposals and in selecting a qualified contractor, the district should make use of any assistance available from Efficiency Vermont, the school energy management program of the Vermont superintendents association, and other similar entities. Factors to be considered in the final selection shall include contract terms, comprehensiveness of the proposal, comprehensiveness of cost-saving measures, experience of the contractor, quality of technical approach, and overall benefits to the district."
BSD board members had hoped to meet this week, after receiving approval from the agency of education, so that they could move the construction process along. As of Monday evening, no special meeting has been scheduled. At the last board meeting, Bennington Town Manager Stu Hurd recommended the board postpone the energy retrofit project until next summer.
"It will allow you to correct any deficiencies that may exist in the way the project has come to fruition," he said.
There are currently differing opinions on whether, should the project not be completed this year, the board would need to go back to the voters for another bond vote.
Superintendent Jim Culkeen did not immediately return a request for comment.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.