Solar may light school:; Town dodged “scary stuff” from session
by Mike Eldred
May 29, 2014 | 3580 views | 0 0 comments | 88 88 recommendations | email to a friend | print
DOVER- At a sparsely attended special school district meeting Tuesday evening, board members sought public input on the possibility of siting a solar array on the school’s property, and discussed legislative strategies.

School board chair Richard Werner said the solar project was proposed by the facilities committee that was formed two years ago. If the school were to move forward with the project, the school would contract with a company. That company would seek investors to pay for the panels and the installation of the array. The school, and the town, would get a 10% discount on electricity, Werner said, and the school would receive an annual payment for the lease of the land. “They’d need five acres,” he said. “We have 30 acres here.”

Werner said board members were seeking public opinion before they put out a formal request for proposal to solar companies. “We didn’t think it would be a big issue, but, then, we didn’t think having a cell tower would be a big issue,” he said, referring to a previous proposal that was shot down by school district voters. “So we wanted to have this meeting to see what people think.”

Werner said that trees would be cut to clear a space for the array, and the solar panels could be visible from some locations. “I’ve never heard anyone call them ugly, but look at the windmill fight,” he said. “We just want to get it all out there to see if there’s something we’re missing, and make sure people are good with it.”

Werner also acknowledged that a windmill installed at the school, which had promised substantial savings to the school, turned out to be a bust. “We’re still stinging from the windmill,” he said. “But $20,000 after we found out about all the things they forgot to tell us, we’re lucky if we generate $60 worth of electricity per year. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. But this seems OK because there are government guarantees.”

The guarantees are mostly in the form of tax incentives for investors.

Dover Economic Development Director Ken Black asked if the school would be able to sell excess power generated by the solar facility. Werner explained that, unlike the windmill, the school wouldn’t own or operate the solar array, it would be owned and operated by a private company, which would also purchase, install, and maintain it.

Black also asked where the array would be located, and Joan Black asked if it would be visible from the road or from other properties. Werner said there were a couple of possible locations on the property. “Both companies said there were some good spots on the school property,” he said. “We have 30 acres so, unless there’s another use for it, and I don’t think we want to build housing or a factory, it would be a green move for us.”

With only five residents in attendance at the meeting, four of them town officials, no objections were raised to the plan. Werner indicated the school would continue to develop the plan, eventually holding a public hearing before a final board vote on a contract. Joan Black suggested the board have a mockup at the next meeting showing how and where the array would appear once it’s built.

Under the second warned article, the board planned to discuss actions the district might take in response to proposed governance and funding legislation that would have negatively impacted Dover School. But the legislation was never passed. A House-approved provision that would have phased out a grant to small schools was removed from legislation in the Senate, and a House governance bill that would have consolidated school boards, school districts, and supervisory unions died in the Senate. “There was a lot of scary stuff going on in ‘Mostpeculiar,’” Werner said, “and we wanted to have a meeting to react to whatever they did.”

Instead of “scary stuff,” however, the Legislature passed a bill that will establish a uniform method of accounting for schools, something Dover and other local education funding critics have sought for the last several years. Dover board member Laura Sibilia said it will allow the analysis and comparison of school spending across districts for the first time. Rep. John Moran said he was instrumental in defeating the phase-out of the small schools grant and the governance bill. “It wasn’t all luck,” he said. “No single legislator can make things happen, so one of the things we do is make alliances. One of my allies is Sen. Richard McCormack, chair of the Senate Education Committee. And he had no sympathy for any of this.”

Moran said he fought the provision in the tax bill that would have phased out the small schools grant, offering an amendment and supporting another legislator’s amendment to remove the provision from the bill. The amendment failed, as did another by Rep. Ann Manwaring that proposed a study of the grant. But when the bill moved to the Senate, the provision was removed. “Senators have larger districts, and most have small schools in their districts, so they have more pressure,” he explained.

Moran said the defeat of the legislation was thanks to his work and that of Manwaring, Sibilia, and Dover’s lobbyist Clare Buckley. “We got some positives here, but we also stopped bad things from happening.”

Moran said several legislators are forming a group to “look at governance from the grassroots up.” They’re planning to propose a counter-plan to the consolidation plans that have been described as “top-down.” Another proposal under discussion would significantly change school funding. “It wouldn’t be just a straight property tax,” Moran said. “There would be a base amount, and the rest would be based on an income tax.”

Sibilia thanked Moran for his work on the issues. But she said Dover taxpayers were also responsible. “I want to underscore that what Dover voters have done is significant,” she said. “It has potential to bring about some pretty incredible change and accountability for Vermont’s financing system.”

She said the legislation creating a uniform chart of accounts is something that the board has been pursuing since they conducted a study with Wilmington of the impact of acts 60 and 68. She said the study revealed inequalities and prompted the town to hire a lobbyist. “This year, the voting was right along large school and small school lines, and that shows you the inequality right there,” she said. “I don’t think we could have gotten the chart of accounts (legislation) if it weren’t for our lobbyist and the work done by the town of Dover. This is going to let us understand, for the first time, what they’re buying with all the money in over 200 districts in Vermont. I think it was a good investment.”

“One of the things that has made this work so well is that the school board and selectboard work so well together,” added Werner. “If you see Buzzy (William Buswell) tell him that, for whatever we spent on the lobbyist, we saved over 70,000-something dollars.”
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