Thursday April 21, 2016
Feedback and Analysis Continues
At the March 22 community forum designed to update residents on the master planning and visioning process, the district sought community input. A survey, printed on the back of the information packets participants received on their way into the high school auditorium, asked individuals to rank the five school configuration options presented that evening, based solely on the information presented. White + Burke real estate investment advisers presented the financial analysis of five different school configuration options for the community and board to consider.
The survey asked participants to rank their top choice as number 5 and last choice as number 1. This created some confusion, as was evidenced by the comments people added to their surveys. This also created a challenge for board members as they worked to compile the data. What was discovered is that of the 180 people who attended the March 22 meeting, 149 signed in and 110 completed feedback forms. Of those, 80-85 percent had comments. Board members Bridget Burkhardt and Elizabeth Fitzgerald have been working to create a spreadsheet to collect the data from these forms. Since some people reversed their rankings, those surveys were not included unless a comment on their form made their intention clear.
Even with this small sampling from the community, some themes have begun to emerge, like whether or not the fifth grade should move to the middle school and whether (or how) to prioritize the high school. The surveys Fitzgerald evaluated highly identified as parents, whereas Burkhardt’s grouping were mainly community members. This process was helpful in identifying gaps in outreach in terms of neighborhood as well as individuals who self-identified as renters vs. owners of homes (of the surveys completed, only three identified as renters).
Once all the information is compiled, the board will decide how they want to share this data with the public. Burkhardt stressed that at this point she believes that the board needs to focus on the feedback and “the community informing us.”
Board Begins to Narrow Options Scenarios 4 and 5 Unlikely
South Burlington has long been recognized for the quality of its schools. Most recently, a 2016 report by Niche.com, a ranking and review website, named the district number one in the state. Tuttle Middle School and the high school took the top spots in their respective categories and Orchard and Central Schools took the number one and two spots for best public elementary school in the state. But as demographics and educational mandates continue to evolve statewide, the district has been exploring how it can continue to provide a top education at a price the community can afford.
The district administration team, along with White + Burke financial investment advisors, presented five potential school configuration options and their associated educational and financial implications at a March 22 community forum at South Burlington High School.
In the weeks since the presentation, the board has been evaluating the data received from anonymous community surveys, and compiling a list of frequently asked questions. They set up a format for upcoming community meetings at each of the elementary schools as well as a strategy for getting information out to the public.
At their April 13 board meeting, Board Chair Patrick Leduc tossed out the inevitable question: where do respective board members stand when they look at each of the five options? (See Chart)
As each board member weighed in, it became evident that option 4 and option 5 seemed unlikely choices to be moved forward.
Martin LaLonde said, “We’ve seen the task force report, we’ve seen the White + Burke and administration reports, it seems we’re at a point where we need to begin narrowing the options...weighing the benefits and costs, I’m not sure the scale balances enough to choose option 4 or 5.”
Elizabeth Fitzgerald said she felt similarly. “From day one, we got questions asking if the Saxon Partners offer (to buy Central School) initiated this conversation...no, it just accelerated the process. It’s always difficult to have a conversation on school configuration when things are going well,” she said. She stressed that although the board seemed to be leaning toward evaluating the first three options, she wants to “preserve the integrity of the process” so as not to be disingenuous to the community.
Julie Beatty added that too many things are going well in South Burlington schools to consider a huge shift. She also thought the price tag on options 4 and 5 was too high and felt unsure the purported benefits associated with those options would be worth the cost.
Bridget Burkhardt was surprised after seeing the White +Burke analysis since she assumed consolidation would equate to economic efficiencies. She concurred with fellow board members regarding skepticism around options 4 and 5 and thought focusing on option 1-3 rather than resident’s concerns around 4 and 5 would be a good idea. Burkhardt also added that the board needs to work on clearly identifying the inequalities that exist currently within the schools; regardless of the building structure.
Leduc offered a caveat though, he wondered if the possibility existed that the value of the school’s property was peaking due to City Center development. Leduc said he would like to see more work done on the potential fiduciary responsibility of the district before removing 4 and 5 from consideration.
Young explained that when he evaluated the options, he looked at them purely from an educational standpoint; at the time, White + Burke had not completed their financial analysis. LaLonde wondered how much better Young considered option 5 to be, and thought it would be valuable information for the community to understand.
With the board largely leaning against options 4 and 5, what does that mean for the upcoming community meetings? An overview of all five options will still be given and feedback will be welcomed on each. There will be a short introduction for the board to speak to frequently asked questions. More information will be provided regarding specific upgrades to the middle and high school, then community members will engage in discussion at breakout tables of no more than ten, which will be facilitated by board members and administrators.