BENNINGTON — After getting permission from voters to secure a bond for $4.5 million to improve energy efficiency in Bennington's three elementary schools, the Bennington School District board has hit a snag on the project.
In a letter dated April 4, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe wrote to the BSD board, "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 their (request for proposals), or evaluating the vendor's proposal, or selecting the vendor. These critical steps in statute 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."
Legal representatives from both the board and Energy Efficient Investments, the contractor hired for the project, sent letters to Holcombe appealing the decision, but the secretary responded on April 21 that her decision was final.
George Sleeman, who was acting BSD chairman in the absence of Ken Swierad, read a letter from the board at its regular meeting on Wednesday, that read, "Energy conservation improvement work planned for the (BSD) schools this summer has been delayed. The work involved in large part replacing and upgrading lighting, windows, heating systems, and controls. Bennington voters approved the bond funding in the amount of $4,461,000 for the planned on March 1, 2016. Since receiving this approval, the Bennington School District board has been working to finalize arrangements for funding. The Vermont secretary of education in two letters, dated April 6, 2016 and April 21, 2016, has instructed the (BSD) board to follow the bidding process for public bids in, state law 16 VSA section 599b, for the project, or restart the energy performance contracting process from the beginning and act in alignment with 16 VSA 344af. The (BSD) treasurer has advised us that until the conditions in the letters from the secretary of education are addressed, the attainment of short term financing or a bond for the project will not be possible."
"While this work will likely be completed in the near future," he continued, "it will not be completed in time to allow the construction to commence during the summer of 2016."
After the letter was read, board member Jackie Prue made a motion to send the RFP for the project to Efficiency Vermont. She said that four other districts in the state have used the same RFP for projects in the last year, and all of their projects are now underway. She said if they act immediately, they could potentially approve a bid by their June meeting, and while the work could not be completed over the summer, the materials could be purchased at today's prices, and the work could be done during school vacations where appropriate, and could be finished by next summer.
"There was nothing wrong with the RFP," she said.
"(Otter Valley Union High School) just approved the exact same RFP that we're using," said board member Gene Rowley. He also referenced a line in Holcombe's April 6 letter that said the review of the project by her agency was done at the specific request of the BSD board. "I have made two requests for this specific request by the Bennington School Board,'" he said, "and she has refused to produce this request, so as of May 6, I have filed under the Vermont Public Documents Act, requiring them to produce this document, which got the AOE involved in this situation. This board never filed a request to have the AOE get involved in this project. Once I get it, whoever filed a request in the name of this board, impersonating a board member, I hope this board will bring that person up on charges."
The board also voted to use Pietro Lynn, of Lynn, Lynn, Blackman & Manitsky, P.C. as their legal counsel for the project, rather than SVSU general counsel Steve Stitzel. Prue explained their reasoning, saying, "Steve Stitzel has worked on a couple of these that are going forward, these energy efficiency projects. Ours is the only one that he could, all of a sudden, find an issue. I'm having difficulty understanding, with the same exact RFP, what was wrong with ours? And what was wrong with our timeline, when we did everything the same as these other schools? I don't want to say there's a conspiracy, but I'm willing to believe it."
"I will not work with Steve Stitzel on this project," said Rowley, "He's worked on projects all over, and they've had no problems. Then all of a sudden our energy project get jammed up? I will not work with Steve Stitzel on this project."
"I'm going to make it clear," said Prue, "We went out and asked the voters for four point something million dollars, and we had this wonderful plan. The kids weren't going to have to sit in classrooms where the ventilators weren't rattling anymore, so teachers would have to shut them off so there's no air exchange. Now, because lawyers want to fool around, our project got put on hold. It is going to go forward. If it's the last thing I do on this board, I will make sure this project goes forward."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.