City Pitches Land Swap to School Board

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Thursday October 22, 2015

The development of a City Center and the future needs of the city’s schools have long been topics of discussion in South Burlington. Over the last year, dialogue between city and school, a private developer, and a master planning and visioning task force accelerated, as numerous possibilities were examined.

On Tuesday, October 13, the focus narrowed to Rick Marcotte Central School(RMCS), when City Manager Kevin Dorn made a request for the school board to trade their RMCS property for a city-owned site in Oak Creek Village to build a new school.

Dorn said that the land exchange proposal could ‘facilitate the achievement of mutual objectives of city and school.’

The city manager’s proposal was presented at the quarterly steering committee meeting. The steering committee is comprised of the members of the city council, members of the school board, the superintendent and the city manager.

Reading from a memo dated August 12, 2015, Dorn called the idea a ”timely and game changing opportunity, as the dual priorities of stimulating the build out of our new downtown(City Center) and constructing a state of the art elementary school to serve generations of South Burlington children are in alignment. ”

The city, largely focused on the development of City Center, is pushing to acquire the 12 acre Central School property as a crucial piece to the realization of their vision.

At the same time, the school board is doing their due diligence to determine the best educational opportunities for students at a rate that taxpayers can afford.

The City Perspective

In July 2013, the Vermont Economic Progress Council (VEPC) unanimously approved the city’s plan to use tax increment financing (TIF) to build City Center as a public-private partnership. The TIF District plan clears the path to allow the district to retain 75 percent of the increase in education tax revenue generated within the boundaries (of the district) over a twenty year period. With a positive vote by the legal voters of the city, these revenues may be used to finance the infrastructure and improvements in the City Center plan. Debt must be incurred for TIF District projects by March 2017.
The city is ready to move forward with City Center planning and sees the Central School property as being essential to its success. Currently, property in the area designated for City Center is privately owned, and the city believes that gaining site control would provide an important component to drive development forward.

The proposal, presented on behalf of a unanimous city council, recommends that the city will:
• transfer ownership of the “Oak Creek School Site” to the school district
• negotiate with the neighboring landowner to provide additional land to the school for construction of a new school
• agree to an appropriate date/time to vacate Central School that avoids children being schooled in trailers
• issue an RFP to identify a co-develope
• master plan the Central School property, involving the community
• obtain a legal opinion as to whether or not the local options tax proceeds can be used to pay down debt associated with the construction of a school, and will consider dedicating some amount of the lot to school debt repayment for some number of years
• potentially engage in community-based master planning for the Chamberlin and Orchard School properties
• sell the master planned property or properties with net proceeds to the school district.

The proposal asks the school district to transfer the RMCS property to the city, potentially transfer Chamberlin and Orchard properties to the city, and suggests that they ask the legislature to amend current statutes to forgive repayment of state investment if funds are reinvested in a new facility.

Expressing a sense of urgency, City Council Chair Pat Nowak said, “Our time line is different, we don’t have the ability to wait, there will be decisions the council has to make that may not be in line with the school’s vision. We paid $100,000 for consultant fees (for master planning and visioning work) and I was hoping there would be some conclusion (on the school board side), now, it could possibly be another year...the city does not have that time.”

The School Perspective

After hearing the council chair’s concerns about the need for a timely response to their offer, Young explained that the board is not stalling and that cost modeling is very complex work.

The board is currently weighing the recommendations put forth this summer after 8 months of study by the Master Planning and Visioning Task Force. Superintendent Young’s recommendation supports one of those options, which calls for the district to transition from three existing elementary schools to one newly built consolidated elementary school.

In September, when Young presented his recommendation for school reconfiguration to a single, phased, consolidated elementary school, he said, “There is a need to do something. We currently are providing an excellent education, but we have an opportunity here.” He noted many opportunities that could be realized in consolidation, such as shared resources, equity and bringing back peripheral programs like world language at the elementary school.

The board has not made a decision on any proposal or expressed an opinion yet. The district is going to evaluate the status quo, look at each school individually, and establish a baseline against which to judge other scenarios. The aim is that the work is complete and thorough. “We want to provide more clarity around ideas before seeking community feedback; develop baseline data, financial forecasting, clarity for education opportunities, and bring clear options to the community with specificity around finances, taxpayer impact, and phasing of educational opportunities,” Young said.

Board member Martin LaLonde said, “Lots of people are satisfied with the status quo, which is why we need to flesh out our analysis. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has a lot of good things in it, but there are concerns. Although the task force has made a recommendation, and the superintendent has made a recommendation, the board is not yet convinced Central School should be sold, … we recognize the benefits of a single elementary school, especially in terms of reducing inequities.”

LaLonde also mentioned that if the board engaged in a land swap without issuing a Request for Proposal (RFP), they would never know how much money they could have received for the property. The board recently rejected an offer from a private developer to purchase the school property in order to consider other options.

Dorn pointed out that the city’s proposal comes with infrastructure, which he posits would eliminate the work the school board would have to do with an RFP, both in finding a buyer for the property and searching for a school site, giving them more time and energy to focus on the education components of 21st century learning.

LaLonde commented that that if the school were to sell and the district had to build a new school, they would have to ask taxpayers to approve a bond. Would the budget be approved at a later date when they had to ask for improvements to the high school, he wondered.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald noted that the board needs to consider, “Independent of finances, where are the most emerging needs? The Chamberlin School is dealing with airport noise and neighborhood changes... if we were going to triage schools, Chamberlin would rise to the top.” She also mentioned the bond repayment debt the district would owe to the state with the sale of a school. “There are complexities that came up at the 11th hour that we need to consider...we see the value of consolidation, but we need a compelling presentation to the community, and to consider investments at the high school,” Fitzgerald said.

Councilor Helen Riehle said she appreciated the board’s due diligence in getting the numbers. “It’s critical...to rush ahead without those could spell disaster.” She also said that even though there is a difference in proposals between the two bodies, they both need to be sold to the taxpayer, and that over the coming months it will be critical for the council and board to work together.

Members of the public who were present expressed that they hadn’t had a chance to weigh in on the proposals and were patiently waiting to do so.

Resident Erin Sutherland said the city’s proposal “sits so negatively...it feels lousy to have 1 or 2 options.” John Collins said he had a problem with the land swap concept; taking a known and swapping it for an unknown. Others said that they would need good reasons from the city as to why they should give up their schools.

Fitzgerald said, of the school board, “We need to complete our due diligence...we specifically made a decision not to pursue the Saxon Partners offer [to give them time to determine next steps] and now we have a proposal from the city and we still need to complete our due diligence.”

The next steering committee meeting is scheduled for mid-January.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent