State to Bennington School District: Energy project must be started over from the beginning

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly named Brad DeBoer, of Efficiency Vermont. It has been updated with the correction.

BENNINGTON — The Bennington School District Board has received word from the state Agency of Education that they will have to restart their energy retrofit project from the beginning. However, it appears that the project could get back on track by mid-August.

This is still a difficult blow for the district, which had originally hoped to have the majority of the work completed by the time school began again in the fall. However, in April, the board received a communication from Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe advising that they had not followed state statute, and would have to re-start the process. She wrote, "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."

"What they're saying we did wrong," said SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen at a special meeting of the BSD board Tuesday, "is that Efficiency Vermont was not in the loop early enough."

Culkeen said he spoke with Efficiency Vermont's representative, Brad DeBoer, on May 12, and received the organization's recommended changes to the district's request for proposals, which included language changes and additional clauses to better align with state codes. Culkeen then spoke with Holcombe on May 19 to ask her to clarify her remarks in her April letter. She re-stated that the project would need to be started over, including a new energy audit. On May 23, Culkeen said, Efficiency Vermont expressed its own concerns about the audit, specifically that certain comparisons it made were not "apples to apples," and recommended that it be re-done.

BSD Director of Building and Grounds, Jerry Prue, said that the audit is included in the original RFP. The first audit had been performed by Energy Efficient Investments, who were the only ones to submit a bid on the project. They will have the opportunity to re-bid on the new RFP. "Whoever you pick to do the RFP, they will do the energy audit," he said.

Culkeen recommended hiring MSK Engineering to make the recommended changes to the RFP and administer the bidding process, which would include keeping Efficiency Vermont informed of how the project is progressing. He said that the organization has made it clear that they are to be involved in every step of the process. He said hiring MSK would cost about $3,000, but would be very much worth it, in making sure the $4 million project proceeds smoothly.

Jason Dolmetsch, of MSK, said that it would take two to four weeks to edit the RFP and get it "out on the street." He recommended having site visits scheduled for two weeks after that, followed by two weeks to allow for consultation with Efficiency Vermont. He estimated, based on that timeline, they could choose a contractor by mid-August.

"I've worked with Jason on a number of projects," said Prue, "and he's more than qualified. He'll get the job done in the time frame you need it."

The board unanimously agreed to hire MSK to do that work, although board member Gene Rowley took the time to make it clear that Dolmetsch would be working for the BSD, not the SVSU or the superintendent.

SVSU legal counsel Steve Stitzel also sent a letter to the board, after board members had expressed mistrust of him at the last meeting. He said in the letter that he had not requested formal review of the project, and that request had instead been made by the BSD board's legal counsel, Pietro Lynn. The board did not publicly respond to Stitzel's letter.

— Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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