Master Planning and Visioning Task Force Looks at School Site Options

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Friday January 09, 2015

The School and Community Master Planning and Visioning Task Force has a lot on their plate and the information from consultants just keeps coming! Growing pressures on school and city facilities and infrastructure over the past several years due to airport encroachment on residential areas, the desire to develop a City Center, changing demographics, and increased traffic patterns were just some of the drivers that led to the development of this special city task force. Currently, the group is evaluating civic facility needs versus current resources, examining city demographics, legislative initiatives, school enrollment trends, and the current configuration of the district’s schools, including factors such as location and consolidation.

Sounds like a lot? Well, it is! Which is why the last two meetings lasted for four hours apiece and the community meeting has been pushed back to February 2015.

The group gathered for their fourth meeting December 18, 2014 where they continued evaluating the high school/middle school site as a potential location for a new school as well as sites at Oak Creek Village and the Wheeler nature area. Art Klugo, former DRB member and chair of the task force kicked off the meeting by asking each member to comment on items they would like to discus during the process. Monica Ostby suggested an open dialogue night where the task force could go through information they already had without introducing anything new, while Abby Crocker wanted more information on the successes and failures of other towns that have undergone a similar process. Paul Engels said he was looking forward to the January 5 meeting with the demographer since both he and Chuck Hafter hold deep skepticism about the recently updated report. Engels noted that he sees a lot of children and young families moving into his neighborhood and did not see that reflected in the report.

Klugo jumped in, noting that while he thought it was good to have healthy skepticism, “at some point we need to accept the recommendations coming to us from experts who know far more about these things than I do. We can be skeptical, but be careful not to second guess the professionals who have been hired.”

The January 5 meeting with demographer Jerome McKibben provided valuable information on population and enrollment forecasts. McKibben noted many pertinent facts and figures including the fact that 25 percent of households in the district have children under the age of 18 (32 percent is the national average), the largest population of out-migration is in the 18-24 age range, and 75 percent of high school students graduate and don’t come back. Compounding these facts are the statistics that show the area’s fertility rate is far below replacement levels. McKibben also added that United States population growth trends are leveling and half the population growth has been from foreign immigration. Since the Burlington area has one of the lowest foreign born populations in the country, the in-migration numbers need to be evaluated differently.

Potential School Sites

Facilitator Frank Locker presented several diagrams for potential school sites. Lee Dore of Dore and Whittier architects was on hand to offer further detail and explanation. First up was a revised diagram of the middle and high school site. Dore said that after exploring the site, he found there is not a lot of buildable land. This site option is compounded by the fact that power lines run through a vast section of the property and the power company would object to building on the opposite side of their lines. The group decided that this was not the most viable option now and would be set aside while others were discussed.

Next up for evaluation was the Oak Creek site. The proposal for that location would be a large school, 130,000 sq ft. which could accommodate one big Pre-K through grade 4 or 5 school (all elementary students in one building). This site is in between a number of developing neighborhoods and a mixed use development, the Rye (company) property, which has been approved for development in that area. The Rye development will include a range of housing options; some affordable housing, and some single family homes. This site, according to task force member comments, has the potential of contributing to the ideal of making South Burlington a truly livable, walkable city.

Finally, the Wheeler Homestead site was evaluated as another potential school site. One concept for the property involves a 115,000 sq. ft. building which would accommodate Pre-K-4 or 5. The other option involves building a structure of 120,000 sq. ft. further away from the current historic brick building to the east. Chuck Hafter pointed out that in 1992, the community voted to conserve the property and more recently, the option of building a police station on the site was the source of much public outcry. In order for this site to work, the bond issue would need to be changed to allow construction. Klugo thought the task force should keep it as a viable option. However, Hafter wasn’t so sure, noting, “I’m not trying to be political here, but keep in mind, if you build here, those gardens will be gone.”

The issue of building on conserved land came up again when the Underwood Property was mentioned. Engels pointed out there is currently a committee working on options for the site that have mostly involved active or passive recreation and because it was purchased with Open Space Fund monies, there is a presumption that it would largely remain open space.

Educators Perspective

The task force allotted time to hear the perspectives of educators Holly Rouelle and Patrick Burke. Chamberlin School Principal Rouelle said she had met with the other elementary school principals and they had requested that another option for school configuration be thrown into the mix: one large K-4 school with grade 5 moving to the middle school. Rouelle believes this would assist in resolving socioeconomic inequities since students from the Chamberlin neighborhood are often stigmatized as being “from the wrong side of the tracks.” Pre-K and Kindergarten in one building was another suggested possibility.

The biggest challenge SBHS Principal Patrick Burke noted at the high school level centered around staff efficiencies. “When all the budgets get pulled together and we need to make reductions, it’s not copier paper that gets cut, it’s people,” Burke said. Burke said that maintaining a quality education is a priority and a benefit to his school where 80 percent of graduates enroll in a two or four year college and the dropout rate is about 5 percent (“It should be zero,” Burke added).

What About Security?

Kevin Dorn introduced one key item, not yet touched upon by the task force: security. Dorn explained that currently, the city’s fire and police have to shuttle all over the city between five different schools, memorizing their layouts. Each building poses its own physical challenges. Dorn said it would be a significant improvement if there were one large building with top of the line security systems. While Dorn noted the issue of school security is an uncomfortable one, “it’s inescapable.”

With cost options, demographic analysis, and pro and con lists still to come, Klugo made a summary comment. He said, “At some point, we’re going to have to put our personal feelings aside, put all the options in the middle of the table, and keep the best interests of the community in mind...there isn’t a silver bullet that’s going to resolve all of these issues.”

You can keep up with the task force’s work and view press releases, documents, and minutes on the South Burlington City website: www.sburl.com. Stay tuned.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent