BENNINGTON >> State Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, asked for answers and clarification on Wednesday, as to why the energy retrofit of the Bennington schools had stalled.
Voters approved in March the school taking out a $4.5 million bond to finance the project. But on April 4, Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe sent a letter to the Bennington School District board, effectively putting the project on hold because the board did not follow steps outlined in state statute when developing requests for proposals.
"This was the first opportunity I've had to come before your board," Morrissey said at Wednesday's BSD meeting. "I have been contacted by numerous individuals in the community on the issue of our energy plan that is now on hold. I'm not sure how we find ourselves in this position at this point."
"I had several discussions with Secretary Holcombe," she said, "and first of all, I don't know how the Secretary of Education would be looking to decide what our energy policy plan is, when there is no state money involved. And I asked her several times, and said, how did this come before you, because that's not in your purview to be doing. She also showed me the policy that showed that you should be looking to do this step, that step, and the other, but it does not say 'shall,' which would mean you are required to. I know of four other districts that did their plans very similarly, if not exactly the same as what this board did, so it's very concerning for me, in the 13th hour, after our town wrapped their arms around doing an energy policy in these schools, that is greatly needed, as our schools are antiquated at best.
Morrissey said Holcombe told her that Superintendent James Culkeen had approached her with questions first. According to SVSU legal counsel Steve Stitzel, it was BSD legal counsel Pietro Lynn who submitted that request for oversight, although some members of the BSD board have expressed distrust in Stitzel in regards to this project.
"There's some discrepancies between what (Holcombe) said and what you're saying," said Culkeen, who offered to sit down with the two to get on the same page, "First, as the secretary of education pointed out to me, this is state money. It might not be a state matching grant or anything, but every dollar for this is coming from the state ed fund. It's being paid for through our budget, but our budget comes through the state ed fund, so the secretary of education said to me, 'This is state money,' and therefore, they do have a say in it. I don't know if she said something different to you, but that's what she said to me... Bennington is one of those communities, as you know, that receives more money in state aid than we send in our taxes, so a good portion of the money that will be used to make those bond payments is coming from other communities in Vermont. That's how it was explained to me."
Board member Gene Rowley visibly disagreed with Culkeen, shaking his head vigorously during his response.
"When did you get this information?" Morrissey asked, "If this policy decision wasn't ready for prime time, it shouldn't have come before the voters."
Culkeen said that he had not been the overseer of the plan until after the bond vote. The project had been under the direction of then chief financial officer Rick Pembroke, who resigned in late March, after the vote.
"I'm sorry, superintendent, but the buck stops with you. You have to be looking at every project," Morrissey responded.
Culkeen said it was only after the bond vote that he learned the bond language or that any of the contracts involved with the project had never been approved, or even seen, by Stitzel. When Morrissey again chastised him for bringing an incomplete project before the voters, he responded, "I agree, but I was assured it was ready."
He said he had reviewed the project to the best of his knowledge, but had not gone over it with the attorney because he assumed it had already been done, per policy.
"Once I learned about it, I moved forward with it," he said, "but up until that point, construction projects were not handled by the superintendent. Whether that's right or wrong, that was the process that was in place."
The board, at Culkeen's recommendation, recently approved a contract with MSK Engineering and Design to work with Efficiency Vermont and draft RFPs that will align with requirements Holcombe layed out. That process is expected to be completed by the end of the summer and construction should begin next summer, about a year after it had been initially planned. Culkeen said he did not know why an engineer had not been brought in to work on the project before that, as it is common practice to employe one on every construction project.
"Taxpayers and citizens and parents and teachers are now scratching their heads, waiting another year for something that would have benefitted the schools and the students and teachers within," said Morrissey.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.