Steering Committee Talks Timelines: How do city and school priorities align?

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Thursday October 13, 2016

As the future of South Burlington continues to take shape, the distinctly separate roles of the city and the school district are in sharp focus. With the two entities working to fit multifaceted pieces of the puzzle together, the city council and school board recently met to address the complex issues before them.

The steering committee, a joint body of the city council and school board, meets several times per year to connect and share perspectives on key topics that affect both the school and city. At the October 6 meeting, two major topics were on the docket: master planning and visioning and the upcoming City Center TIF vote. Both the board and council were given the opportunity to provide basic information and ask questions about these looming decisions.

The school board has been working on the master planning and visioning process since 2014 and most recently delivered individual position statements regarding their preferred options for elementary school consolidation, including not consolidating. Among the concerns raised by board members are the impact to tax payers, locking the district into debt service which may affect future budget decisions, and the possibility of delaying improvements at the middle and high school. The board has had two meetings since that time where they have had the opportunity to ask questions of one another and have tried to determine whether more information is needed in order to move forward in some direction.

The board members reiterated their positions and reasoning to the council Thursday night. Opinions ranged from a modified option 2, keeping all schools open — but with upgrades to all, to full consolidation to a single elementary school. With the current lack of consensus, board members have been grappling with how and when to move to the next step in the process.

Meanwhile, the city is presenting its first TIF bond vote on the November ballot for the construction of Market Street and City Center Park. With community information sessions in full swing and the importance to the city of this vote palpable, the primary question for the school board was one of timing. City Council Chair Helen Riehle broached the topic first, followed by similar comments from fellow councilors. Riehle pointed out that if the board was going to be in a holding pattern for “x” number of years, then the city could work on moving City Center forward. Tom Chittenden wondered if it would be fair to say the board is in a “multi-year holding pattern?”

School Board Chair Patrick Leduc said the board couldn’t commit to a timeline at the moment or make any guarantees that they would not do anything for a certain number of years, pointing out that if a significant change occurred that affected their schools, such as excessive noise, the board would need to act.

While the council understood their perspective, Tim Barritt pointed out that people dislike uncertainty and thought it would be helpful if the board released a statement simply saying that they haven’t made a decision yet and are in a holding pattern. Councilors thought this might be helpful for the public in order to separate the board’s decision from the TIF vote. Leduc said he would take their suggestion under consideration and was hesitant to get into a “back and forth” at the meeting.

As the conversation moved into budget planning, the city and school agreed that sharing information on their respective budget cost-drivers would be important moving forward, especially in terms of the district’s stewardship plan and the city’s CIP (capital improvement program). Emery also suggested putting out a statement from the council saying that as each body is on the cusp of major decisions, they would work together to be sensitive to each other’s needs.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent