Thursday July 16, 2015
The Master Planning and Visioning Task Force presented their draft final report and recommendations for reconfiguration and consolidation of the district’s schools at the June 3 steering committee meeting. The task force recommended two options for consideration. Option O calls for two elementary schools, a kindergarten through grade 2 school, and a grade 3-5 school, utilizing either Orchard or Chamberlin in addition to a newly built school, with the middle and high schools remaining unchanged. Option Q recommends one newly built consolidated elementary school for kindergarten through grade 4, grades 5-8 in the middle school and 9-12 in the high school. These options consider selling or repurposing Chamberlin and/or Orchard schools; the use of Central School was not included in the recommendations.
City council and school board members were given an opportunity to review the 100-page majority report, as well as a minority report, and to submit questions for a task force follow-up.
Chair Art Klugo and task force member John Wilking returned July 8 to address the steering committee. They summarized that the questions submitted by council and board members fell into five categories: the status quo, whether the idea of a new high school was supported by the task force, the impact of transitions on children, phasing, and school size.
According to the task force report, the “status quo” identifies that the “current educational model would remain in place for the foreseeable future. The facility costs to maintain this model include stewardship costs, NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges) costs, and other educational improvement costs as needed to maintain a quality education model.” The total status quo costs, according to the report would be $11,494,000, with $3,298,000 for stewardship and $8,196,00 for physical changes to meet NEASC expectations.
Wilking categorized questions related to the status quo as asking, “How are we doing today and where should we be going?” Wilking said that South Burlington has great schools now if everything remains the same, but looking to the future means changes in the physical buildings where programming drives facilities. Wilking added that currently the district is working with inflexible facilities that are out of date and don’t meet the NEASC recommendations.
A New High School
While a new high school was not mentioned in the two options recommended to the steering committee, the options did leave the possibility open. Several individuals pressed the task force for an opinion on the matter, nonetheless.
A majority of the task force supported the idea of a new high school, but they would want it to remain on the current campus for a number of reasons, not the least of which is due to its proximity to the middle school and the opportunity that provides for collaboration and mentoring. The final report will reflect this support. Klugo said, “There is a pathway to get there if the voters want to (at a significant cost).”
Many wanted to know how phasing would work. The tentative answer is that each may have multiple phases depending on the school. The use of modulars could run concurrently with construction. While there wasn’t a proposed phasing schedule for something of that nature at the meeting, this will be part of the final report.
One focus from the beginning concerned Central School. The task force questioned if it was the best location for the community since there are ways to make the schools work without it. Klugo was clear to explain that while the task force supported the sale of the school, it was not driven by the Saxon Partners offer currently on the table and the majority believe that an RFP (Request for Proposal) process would be important if the school district and ultimately the voters decided to move in that direction.
Kids move from grade to grade and school to school regularly and it was agreed by task force members that there are pros and cons, but if transitions were the major concern of educators and parents, Wilking said, “Every school would be PreK-12.”
At a prior task force meeting, former Superintendent Bruce Chattman said, “What concerns me are the current transitions . . . bringing together students for the first time in 6th grade, at a very vulnerable point in pre-adolescence.”
Is there an ideal school size? Wilking reported the task force found that small is good and he believes in small learning communities, but a bigger school could still offer that ambiance by virtue of design. There are variable opinions on what is ideal. “Change is scary and we love what we have, but not all change is bad,” Wilking said.
While the task force did not focus a lot of attention on the security of school facilities during their discussion, high school Principal Patrick Burke, a member of the task force, did express that it is one of his top priorities.
Councilor, Tom Chittenden, a father of three young children, presented a detailed comment at the steering committee meeting including a map of where various crimes have occurred throughout the city from 2003-2013. As a result of Chittenden’s research, he thought it made sense to place a new school at the Oak Creek site and explained that there are numerous physical enhancements that could be made to a new school to improve security. Chittenden pointed to ideas incorporated in Newtown, Connecticut where the community razed the school site and engaged in a design process that allowed for “invisible security.”
Klugo responded, “Is a single building going to be more secure? Physically, yes, but it comes down to training, how we manage awareness, raising a building can only do so much . . . anything new is going to have more than the older.” Task force member Abby Crocker, also a parent of small children added that in a large building, there are also more people flowing in and out on a daily basis.
Wilking explained that they did spend a fair amount of time looking at the Oak Creek site and realized that only a small portion could be used since it’s relatively wet and the configuration of the site was such that Swift Street would need to be moved essentially “through a swamp.”
Of the three community members who commented at the meeting, all mentioned the need for more community input without limiting options. Tim Barritt said, “The urgency disturbs me . . . we have no problem right now. As a taxpayer, I need to know what my tax rate is going to be for the next 25 years, how much is it going to increase beyond salary and benefits? I want all the evidence . . . so no one is forced into choosing something.” Barritt also mentioned that he felt the “Big Deal” community meeting was “fixed” and the only reason a task force exists is because of the Saxon Partners offer to buy the school.
The school board and city will determine if one, or both will put out community surveys after the final report is issued in late July. Elizabeth Fitzgerald explained to the board in their subsequent meeting that it will be their responsibility to explain to the community what they are doing, and to articulate what the status quo looks like in terms of ongoing maintenance, including a 10 year vision of what property taxes could look like independent of federal and state variables. Fitzgerald also acknowledged the challenges of explaining the economic benefits of a TIF district to the average taxpayer. Fitzgerald said she envisions a process involving ongoing feedback and potentially, a series of surveys.
The draft master planning and visioning task force report is available on both the city and school websites.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent