Board Hones in on School Planning, Focuses on Central School

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Thursday November 10, 2016

Over the course of three years, the master planning and visioning process has fueled discussions that have gone far beyond the potential redistricting and reconfiguring of the district’s three elementary schools. The impending City Center build out and its impact on Rick Marcotte Central School, enrollment and demographic trends, and current and future noise impacts on Chamberlin School have each had a turn at the forefront of the debate. As the conversations have evolved and new information has become available from the district administration as well as from White + Burke, the financial analysts assigned to evaluate the numbers side of this work, the board has been facing mounting pressure from both city and community stakeholders to devise a timeline for action or inaction.

At the latest steering committee meeting in October as well as subsequent school board meetings, the board, who has been far from unanimous on consolidation, has been urged to release a statement that would clarify their current thinking around the three present elementary schools. By the end of the November 2 meeting, the majority of the board had decided that material changes to Central School were unlikely in the near future.

Parents and community members have been expressing concern about the uncertainty surrounding South Burlington’s three neighborhood elementary schools throughout this process and have become increasingly vocal about their opinions since the board revealed their individual position statements in the early fall. The statements varied widely and preferences ranged from maintaining the status quo (the three current elementary schools with upgrades) to full consolidation and a move of the fifth grade to the middle school.

The ten parents who attended the November 2 board meeting were not shy about expressing their desire for a conclusion to the process. Parent Abby Crocker said that she felt that the flux around the school conversations has had a negative impact on morale in general and Erin Sutherland said that her “trust deposit is down to zero,” and implored the district to invest in what they have right now. Sutherland added that she was reticent to dedicate her time and money to the PTO at Central without a commitment from the district that it would continue operating as a school for a given length of time.

While the board’s positions on consolidation vary, their debates have remained robust and respectful, seeking to understand one another’s rationale for a given stance. At the beginning of the meeting, Elizabeth Fitzgerald proposed three priorities as a springboard for board conversation. These points included identification of needs at the high school and middle school and their respective impacts on taxpayers, monitoring and identifying issues that would accelerate or decelerate a consolidation plan, and planning for operational implementation of consolidation. Fitzgerald clarified this last item does not mean a commitment to do it, but rather creating a plan that could be acted upon if something happened with one of the items they are monitoring.

A concept was also floated by Chair Patrick Leduc to create a strategic plan for consolidation within twelve months, so that if a factor arose that would necessitate closing a school, there would be a plan in place on which to act. Some concerns around this idea were that other priorities the administration currently has on its plate would end up taking a backseat, such as personalized learning plans and achieving the district ends. Martin LaLonde said that he liked the concept, especially if it was found that noise from the F35s, slated to arrive in 2019, adversely impacted the children at Chamberlin, but he found the execution worrisome.

Julie Beatty pointed out that the F35 is not the only issue the board would be monitoring, there are also health and educational outcomes that could trigger a plan. Fitzgerald added that taking into account the administration’s recommendations, specific issues were identified at Chamberlin, which is why a long term strategic vision is of importance.

There is no doubt that there are still a number of moving parts to this conversation, but after more than an hour of debate which included ample public comment, the board agreed, unofficially, that they did not anticipate any material changes to Central School within the next five years. The enthusiasm of the parents present was palpable, but both Elizabeth Fitzgerald and Patrick Leduc reminded them that a straw poll does not equate official action. This item will be up for conversation and potential action at the next meeting.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent