The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Wednesday a $57.8 million loan to the Winooski School District that will be used to undertake a massive renovation of its facilities. The USDA Rural Development Community Facilities loan is the largest of its kind ever awarded in Vermont.
The 30-year loan has an interest rate of 2.25 percent, according to USDA Vermont State Director Anthony Linardos. That low rate will save the district, and Winooski taxpayers, approximately $11 million over the life of the loan, said Winooski School District finance manager Nicole Mace. That’s because the project’s initial estimate — the figure used for a school bond that Winooski voters approved in May of 2019 — used an interest rate projection from the Vermont Bond Bank of 3.63 percent, Mace explained. In response to the economic downturn wrought by COVID-19, the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates in March to stimulate the economy, and they remain at a record low.
By Vermont standards, Winooski doesn’t feel particularly rural. But Linardos said that Winooski’s population of fewer than 20,000 qualified it for a rural development loan. It is the only Vermont school district to receive this type of loan — which is awarded for community facilities including hospitals, libraries, schools and municipal buildings — this year. A team from the Winooski School District worked for several months with the USDA to complete the loan application process.
Last year, Winooski voters approved the $57.8 million school renovation bond by a narrow margin — 368 to 346 — to overhaul of the school’s campus on Normand Street. The 140,000-square-foot complex houses all of the district’s approximately 860 students in grades pre-K-12 and was built between 1957 and 2000 to accommodate 650 students. Winooski is one of the few Vermont school districts that is growing; student population is expect to increase by 10 percent in the next two decades, said the district's communications director, Emily Hecker.
Construction began on the project in June and is expected to be completed by August 2022. Burlington architecture firm TruexCullins designed the project, and ReArch Company in South Burlington is managing the construction.
According to Hecker, renovations will include updating classroom spaces, changing and relocating athletic fields, and replacing roofs and outdated mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.
On Thursday, Winooski School Board president Mike Decarreau, who graduated from Winooski High School more than 40 years ago, explained the dire need for this work. Since he was a student, “the high school building hasn’t changed a bit,” he said. In the spring, he continued, “the south side of the building is an oven.” And when it rains hard, there’s a “bucket brigade” that positions containers to catch water from leaks.
Existing buildings will be renovated to create a new performing arts center, a new cafeteria and a high school “hub,” said Hecker. An estimated additional 63,153 square feet of additions will include a new gym, the expansion of student services offices and an early education wing. A new community services center will include a “grab-and-go” café, a food pantry, a dental care room, and an adult learning and engagement space for English language learners.
School board member Alex Yin said on Thursday that upgrading the campus to create a place where Winooski’s students — more than 50 percent of whom are nonwhite — can “feel at home” will suggest to them that “they do matter to us” and that Vermont “is a place where we all belong.”