Thursday September 24, 2015
Superintendent David Young made a recommendation for consolidation and reconfiguration of the city’s schools at the September 16 school board meeting.
Young has been working with his team to make the recommendation based, in part, on the final reports submitted by the Master Planning and Visioning Task Force in June. Of the two final options presented by the task force, Young supports Option Q, which involves building one new elementary school that would serve students PreK-4, with the middle school enrolling students in grades 5-8. The high school would continue serving grades 9-12. The middle and high school would receive upgrades in this option.
Growing pressures on school and city facilities and infrastructure over the past several years inspired the creation of The Master Planning and Visioning Task Force. The task force, a joint city and school venture, worked for eight months to develop possibilities for South Burlington schools in the future, taking into consideration the city’s growth, the proposed City Center, airport encroachment on residential areas, changing demographics and increased traffic patterns. The members spent time evaluating civic facility needs versus current resources, school enrollment trends, demographics, legislative initiatives and the current configuration of the district’s schools.
The task force presented their draft final report and recommendations to the steering committee June 3. City council and school board members had an opportunity to review the 100 page majority report as well as a minority report which supported alternative options. Their questions were collected and subsequently answered at a July 8 meeting.
Young said that he believes option Q will best serve the district for many years to come. He outlined district enrollment and budget projections out to 2025, stewardship costs, staffing needs, and 21st century learning opportunities that will be more readily available in the new configuration.
Young’s proposed phasing and time line entail a number of steps to take place between September 2015 and August 2019. Some major milestones would involve getting feedback from real estate investment advisers and designing a community survey to solicit feedback. Additionally, he suggested developing a Memorandum of Understanding with the city to define details such as the city’s desire to acquire the schools and to determine possible plans for land acquisition from the city for the school district to support one elementary school. Funding options, to include the school district receiving a percentage of the local options tax on associated property to help lessen the property tax burden, a percentage of the sale of any school properties, and writing an RFP to elicit developer interest in the schools are all to be determined. And of course, the proposal will be subject to approval by voters.
September 16 was the first time board members had viewed the document and many had questions about the proposal. Martin LaLonde said, “I’m not convinced today, but maybe I could be.” LaLonde’s queries were supported by the other board members. He wondered if this concept achieved the district ends relative to cost? He asked, “Can the community pay for it? Will the district still be able to renovate the high school? How would this new school be paid for, if not by taxpayers?” He also wanted to understand why some of the other options explored by the task force weren’t considered.
Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald said she needed clarity around forecasting expenses, the overall district staffing number, and baseline costs. She also thought it would be a good idea to have an alternative to this option to present to the community. She worried about the feedback becoming “diluted” when there are too many options from which to choose, but thought 2-3 would be a good number.
Young said that come 2019/2020 there are big decisions that will need to be made around the schools and budget. “We are going to have to reduce the budget significantly...the only way we can do it is through staffing and opportunities for students...we will continue to meet the ends regardless of configuration. The reality is that given the forecasted enrollment statewide, we’re going to have to make the decision to be proactive rather than reactive.”
Fitzgerald said that the board needs to articulate to the community, in a fundamental way, what is ahead, and to be able to explain it with some level of certainly or risk. “How would this recommendation resolve that?” she asked.
Several parents spoke out at the meeting. Some wondered if, from a learning perspective, a single school would be best for elementary students while others wanted clarity around the financials. Resident Erin Sutherland said that the community needs to become more involved. “Is this (decision) for City Center or schools?” Sutherland asked.
There is not doubt there are many steps and discussions to come in this process. Young said he would give the board a chance to digest the information and submit questions before their next meeting, October 7.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent