Thursday September 01, 2016
It has been a little over a year since the South Burlington School Board received five school configuration recommendations from the Master Planning and Visioning Task Force, which began its work of seeking direction for the future of the city’s schools in November 2014. The board hired White + Burke Real Estate Investment Advisors to research and present a financial analysis of the options, and public outreach was facilitated by the board. to get a pulse on where the community stands.
After considering the information, the board created two subcommittees to dive more deeply into the data: one to explore the financial implications of the options and another to evaluate educational costs and opportunities. At the August 23 board meeting, the subcommittees presented their reports.
Educational Analysis Subcommittee
Martin LaLonde and Patrick Leduc took the reins on the educational analysis side and aimed, through their research, to address two primary issues: maintaining the district’s current level of educational programming and enhancing that programming. The duo considered the rising cost of education, enrollment trends, and risks in regard to debt service payment, as well as the community’s capacity to pay for any given scenario. They note in their report that given the high level of education currently being offered district wide, any debt service taken on could put those programs at risk since it would create a fixed cost. If a budget were to be voted down, difficult choices would potentially have to be made, i.e. cuts to programming in order to foot the payments.
LaLonde and Leduc looked at all five configuration options and evaluated the pros and cons of each. They found that there were educational gains to be made through pursuing one of the consolidation options, but measuring those gains was not a precise science; especially when one begins to discuss “21st Century learning;” specifically the value of flexible spaces as a conduit for collaboration, digital literacy, and the critical thinking skills the district works to foster.
Their extensive report garnered quick feedback from community members present at the meeting. Former task force chair Art Klugo spoke to “21st Century learning” and said that the earlier children are exposed to adaptable learning environments, the better prepared they will be when they emerge into a rapidly changing business climate. He also mentioned educators Holly Rouelle and Cindy Tan, who were members of the task force that touted the benefits of “21st Century learning.”
Parent Erin Sutherland acknowledged that excellent programs are provided for young students and noted the district’s extensive materials, such as those used in a science unit on hydraulics. But she doesn’t feel that special spaces are needed for instruction at the elementary level. Sutherland went on to say that getting support for students who need it in the classroom is a top priority. “I want my kids to be able to read and do basic math first,” she said.
Financial Analysis Subcommittee
Next, the financial subcommittee, comprised of Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Bridget Burkhardt, and Dan Fleming, former school board member, presented a review of the financial model, demographics, a capacity analysis, stewardship and upgrade costs, and operating cost savings. The costs for each scenario range from $23 million in Option 1 which opts for status quo or stewardship/maintenance to existing schools, to $57 million for Option 5, one consolidated elementary school. Some of what was discovered through their research was that capacity is a serious concern in the consolidation scenarios, the costs of options four and five are not offset by reductions in operating costs and stewardship, and that additional work on a district vision for learning overall is necessary.
Other issues to consider when thinking of reconfiguring schools include redistricting if a consolidation option is not chosen, how to address the challenges of noise, equity, and enrollment fluctuations, and the impact of City Center development.
In addition, Elizabeth Fitzgerald gave a summary of community feedback received through e-mails, public comment at meetings, and feedback forms. The majority of community meeting participants were parents and guardians followed by teachers and business owners. The 220 participants, overwhelmingly home owners, represented 1.2 percent of the South Burlington voting population. Of the school configuration options, Option 2, keeping all schools, but with upgrades, was ranked the highest with consolidation to one single school ranked the lowest.
Some themes that emerged from the feedback included a desire to keep Chamberlin open despite noise concerns, trepidation about the fifth grade moving to the middle school, costs, impacts on families, and the fact that the high school is more of a priority for some than the elementary schools.
After the presentations, the board discussed next steps, which included posting all documents to the district’s website along with answers to frequently asked questions and the final White + Burke report.
At the September 7 meeting, time will be allotted for additional community response to the August 23 presentations. Board members will also provide personal statements regarding their thoughts on the options, which could include identifying those they favor most or if they remain undecided.
If the board is to make a recommendation for a ballot item for November voting, the deadline to do so is September 24.
Please note, the September 7 meeting will take place at the Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School library, not the Chamberlin School as previously posted.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent