PCB Testing in Schools

The House Education Committee and the Senate Education Committee held a joint meeting on Tuesday to get an update from school officials on PCB testing.

Mark Tucker (Superintendent, Caledonia Central Supervisory Union) was introduced first and presented his report. Their system had two schools which identified PCB in their buildings, including the Cabot School. He described their system and schools, the sites they tested, positive spaces, which included the gymnasium. They have still not identified the source of the PCBs through testing (which materials contain them).

The air testing protocols are good enough to determine if PCB’s exist in a space, but they are not enough to identify sources for tactical approaches to be determined (figuring out which materials should be replaced. He expressed frustration with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) not allowing for funds to retest after some initial false starts.

He asserts clearly there needs to be 100% funding for testing and that the remediation funds which are 80/20 will likely be exhausted. Meanwhile they have crossed two years of budget votes locally, while they learned the hard way how testing should have been done. He is feeling like a Guinea Pig, saying that the learning curve has been expensive and redundant.

He had two specific criticisms for policy makers: “first, there is no predictable end point for this process in any given school, which means we are trying to manage a process with no clear scope.” His second criticism as that “the proposed cost share method for reimbursing school districts for PCB mitigation and remediation, designed as it was to fit within a constrained funding pool, is by its nature inequitable.”

He suggested that the cost sharing model should adjust for the size or age of the school, because “There is simply no way to predict on a school-by-school basis how easy or complex the remediation effort will be.” He also is concerned that the reimbursement model “doesn’t take into account the capacity of any given district to raise the proportional 20% share of the mitigation and remediation costs.”

“To the first point, it has been eight months since we first learned the Cabot test results, and I still don’t know what I have to do to fix the problem. For that matter, I still don’t know how bad the problem is. We are now waiting for a second round of source testing in the gymnasium.”

He is worried that the cost burden of remediation will “fall more heavily on the smaller, rural school districts that I serve in CCSU.” He shared that his challenge is “convincing my local taxpayers, most of whom have a limited understanding of how education funding works, that they should be asked to raise additional money to resolve a problem they didn’t know they had, and that so far as we know has not harmed anyone.”

Next up was Sherry Sousa (Superintendent, Windsor Central Supervisory Union), who was joined by Raphael Adamek (Director of Instructional Technology, Windsor Central Supervisory Union). Sousa reviewed her slide deck for the joint committee, which contained lots of basic data on the history and applications of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl’s).

She warned that there is real potential for remediation that repeatedly fails, and the building must then be razed and a new school built. She added if there was a mechanism for capital funding, they would have built a new middle and high school in 2017, but they are now stuck in a 6-year cycle and struggling towards that goal.

Rene Sanchez (Superintendent, Champlain Valley School District) and Frank Rucker (Business Administrator, Windham Southeast Supervisory Union) also spoke to many of these same points.

Neil Odell (President, Vermont School Boards Association) shared that the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA) had passed two resolutions, the first demanding that unfunded mandates not be passed by the state legislature, and the second asking for capital construction assistance. He was adamant that as “purposeful as the requirements may be, and as important as addressing PCB contamination in schools is, the fact remains that this is an initiative brought about entirely without involvement on the part of school districts in creating the problem.” He further argued that the Legislature should have planned assistance for school districts to have the capacity to meet these demands, saying that they should “fully fund whatever work is deemed necessary.”

Senator Williams asked exactly why the Attorney General (AG) is not assisting in establishing liability and compensation. Tucker had some comments from testimony he heard about Monsanto but has heard nothing from the AG about this issue.

Senator Hashim is concerned they may be keeping the PCB mitigation in a separate category from general capital needs in their school construction bill. He does not want to see good money chasing after bad with buildings that need replacement and not just mitigation.

Senator Gulick raised the Burlington High School situation as being the real “guinea pig” that led to the PCB bill but sees their point about being frustrated with the process. She acknowledged the 80/20 model was insufficiently thought out.

She added they should not conflate capital construction with PCB remediation funding; now she sees there may be a nexus at some point with the budget pressures for school districts.

Representative Conlon asked specifically what they might desire beyond 100% funding. Sousa responded that they still have a 5-year budget cycle for a loan to replace a heating system in a building that will likely have to replaced. That is devastating to them fiscally.

Conlon added the PCBs are an immediate problem, while capital construction is a long term potential (he referenced their likely study bill) and he, surprisingly, asked out loud if we should “pause the PCB remediation until we get a broader look at school construction and how this PCB testing folds into that?” The room was silent.

Gulick finally voiced concern about poisoning staff and children during a pause. Senator Campion agrees the pause may need to be seen thru the lens of a public health issue and shouldn’t be stalled.

Sousa suggested a middle road where some projects that are minimally over the thresholds in the testing protocols of the DEC could be paused until a new approach to capital assistance is in place. This intermediate category of schools would not be required by law to act immediately and would have more time to plan budgets and capital expenditures.

Tucker also added the concern that large intermittently used spaces like Gymnasiums are treated more or less the same as a confined and concentrated spaces such as classrooms.

Conlon noted that he doesn’t think “parents consider any levels safe if these things are dangerous.” Tucker responded that has not been the reaction when he communicates these situations to parents, saying “no one has shown up at my house with pitchforks.”

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