Woodstock Union High School looks to build new net-zero building

School infrastructure improvements are a common conversation in Vermont as buildings age.
Published: Jan. 27, 2023 at 6:23 AM EST
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WOODSTOCK, Vt. (WCAX) - School infrastructure improvements are a common conversation in Vermont as buildings age. One Vermont town is looking to have voters approve a bond for improvements but wants to make sure it’s environmentally friendly, too.

Woodstock Union High School’s building was built in 1957 with a middle school addition 10 years after. School board officials tell me it’s becoming too expensive to maintain, so they’re looking at building a net-zero energy school.

The high school had six classrooms out of commission last winter because the aging heating system couldn’t keep up.

“Then it was almost $200,000 worth of emergency repairs that we had to do to keep those systems online,” said Ben Ford with the Windsor Central Supervisory Union School Board.

Ford said clogged sewage pipes cause frequent toilet backups. He said issues like this are costing taxpayers to repair, so they want to make a net-zero new building. It would have efficient materials on the exterior, and use solar panels and geothermal heat.

Ford said the building emits 1.8 million pounds of CO2 a year. He said while it would be cheaper to not build net-zero at the outset, it is more efficient long-term.

Net-zero is achieved by reducing your electricity consumption and putting renewable or zero-carbon sources of power onsite, so over a period of time, you average out to be net-zero.

Solar panels would generate a surplus of energy over the summer to put back into the grid and if there’s no sun, you can take from the grid from the credit you’ve accumulated thus averaging net-zero.

At Woodstock Union High School, net-zero entails efficient materials on the exterior, solar panels and geothermal heat.

UVM engineering researcher Amrit Pandey adds that buildings of this age weren’t constructed with this in mind yet, but many newer ones are naturally constructed with more efficient materials to begin with.

This proposal comes when Vermont is trying to meet climate goals.

“This is a small effort, but if many small efforts happen in tandem, then it would have a large impact and it would go a long way,” said Pandey.

He adds that schools use 11% of the total energy consumption of the nation and a school hoping for net-zero is a step in the right direction.

But a new building, and a net-zero one at that, comes at a cost.

“It’s been, I think, maybe 12 or 15 years since the state has directly funded school building projects. So it kind of leaves local school districts on our own to an extent to figure out how to solve for those tax impacts,” said Ford.

A bond would be about $75 million-$80 million, a 30-35% increase on taxpayers. Ford said they don’t want to ask taxpayers to do that, so they’re fundraising $20 million to apply toward the debt with the goal of decreasing the tax impact to 15%-16%.

For some, a new building is a no-brainer.

“I don’t think there’s a choice really. This school is having some serious problems and really needs a makeover or some upgrading,” said Jennifer Nunan of Redding.

Others have questions.

“The question is the efficiency of education and whether or not we’re using the money properly. I think my real concern is that, yes, if we have to have education at a new school or whatever but are we using our money correctly,” said Joel Kolbert of Bridgewater.

Ford says the school has 40 acres to build a new facility, so they’d keep students in the current building until it would be ready.

Taxpayers will be asked to support a $1 million Band-Aid fix for heating this Town Meeting Day, and the school board plans on adding the bond to next year’s ballot.