School board members share their perspective on school configuration at a September 7 meeting.

Board Delivers Positions on School Configuration

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Thursday September 15, 2016

The school board addressed a packed house at the Frederick Tuttle Middle School library September 7 as community members gathered to hear the board’s positions regarding the future of South Burlington schools. As each board member gave their personal statement regarding the five school configuration options under consideration, it became apparent that consensus would not be reached that night. Although board members’ opinions on the matter differed, their respect for each other’s perspective was evident as was their shared desire to maintain and enhance educational opportunities for all students.

Chair Patrick Leduc kicked off the evening by offering a synopsis of how the board arrived at this particular moment. Following months of research and study, The South Burlington School Board received recommendations from the Master Planning and Visioning Task Force in June 2015 regarding five possible options for reconfiguration of the city’s schools. Next, the board hired White + Burke Real Estate Investment Advisors to conduct financial analysis of the options. The superintendent weighed in and public outreach events were held to get a pulse on where the community stands. After considering the reports and recommendations, the board decided they wanted still more in-depth information before they could move forward with a decision, and they created two subcommittees to dive more deeply into the data. At the August 23 board meeting, the subcommittees presented their reports on financial implications of the options and an evaluation of educational costs and opportunities and decided that they would, at their next meeting, present their positions on the configuration options.

Board Positions

Martin LaLonde was the first to present his statement and touched upon the policy governance structure of the board. The board often defers to the superintendent and administration regarding many decisions, but not in the case of a decision of this magnitude; potentially closing one or more of the district’s public schools. After evaluating all configuration options, LaLonde was left wondering if the benefits of a form of consolidation outweighed the costs? He pointed out the risks to fixed costs for debt service and that improvements to the middle and high school should be the priority. LaLonde suggested tabling the consolidation conversation, discussing the potential for redistricting, and establishing a baseline of noise around the Chamberlin School to have something to measure against as the neighborhood changes. He was also in favor of beginning 21st century learning renovations at the middle and high school at a modest cost.

Julie Beatty came out in favor of option 3, consolidating to two elementary schools plus upgrades and moving the fifth grade to the middle school. Beatty referenced, as part of her reasoning, the increase in City Center development along with traffic, Pre-K equity for all students, maintaining one less school, and 5/6 looping at the middle school. Beatty would also like to initiate a study on high school improvements.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald said that structure should follow strategy and although the district’s schools are not currently broken, change is inevitable and she anticipates emerging needs that will require structures that absorb variability. She said she was not persuaded that there is enough information to do a bond soon and suggested implementing a 5 to 10-year phased program (with option 3 as an interim solution) for the entire district with flexibility to accelerate or decelerate the process as warranted.

Bridget Burkhardt expressed her preference for option 2, keeping all schools in their current configuration with stewardship and upgrades. Burkhardt had serious concerns regarding capacity limitations in any of the consolidation options. She also felt there wasn’t a clear vision for education opportunities. Burkhardt said that community members need consistency and suggested that over the next three years, the district focuses on the middle and high school, develop a cost estimate of upgrades, conduct a noise study for Chamberlin, and develop a committee to review current academic offerings.

Patrick Leduc, after pointing to numerous reasons, announced he was in favor of option 5, consolidation to one new elementary school. Leduc said he felt that the educational value of consolidation was clear and a new building would improve potential safety issues for children inside a building. Although the cost is significant, Leduc said there is also a cost to doing nothing. He also acknowledged the risks associated with this option such as the higher percentage of fixed costs, challenges to the size and model of the building, and the need for further research and expertise.

Public Comment

Given the number of residents present at the meeting, the public comments were relatively few. Several members of the former Master Planning and Visioning Task Force spoke. Former chair of the task force Art Klugo said he appreciated the courage of the board and added that “there’s always a reason not to do something, especially when those voices [opposed to consolidation] are the loudest.”

Former Superintendent of Schools and task force member Bruce Chattman echoed those sentiments and encouraged the board to think “through the lens of the children” and to make sure there is a reason for not doing something. He pointed out that there are many school configurations that are successful, including K-8s. “Don’t get caught up in the pre-conceived notions of what works and what doesn’t for others,” Chattman said.

Abby Crocker, also a former task force member and co-author of the minority report thanked the board members for their statements and said they helped to provide some traction to the process. She added that the people who are opposed to consolidation have real concerns and that more discussion on how education is impacted is needed.

Moving Forward

The board will take some time in advance of their next meeting September 21 to read each other’s statements and develop discussion questions. Previously, the potential for a ballot item had been discussed for November, but given the current lack of consensus, that does not seem likely.

School board member’s statements from September 7 will be posted to the district website for the public in the coming week.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent