The South Burlington School Board and the city council will meet on April 22 to hash out a major disagreement over the stormwater plans for 180 Market Street.

The school board at its March 27 meeting decided not to support a proposed change in the definitive agreement with the city over the school’s easements for the new city hall/library building at 180 Market Street. The easements are necessary for the city to build the project and include parking.

Just before the board and the council met for a regular Steering Committee meeting in January, engineers for the city hall project said that a stormwater plan needed to be expanded and improved in order to meet state and federal requirements.

City Manager Kevin Dorn said Monday that the updated stormwater plan would require the city to build a gravel wetland that will be dry on the school property. He said he was not sure how much more land would be required, but estimated the gravel wetland at 50 feet by 150 feet.

The current easement with the school allows the city to use 0.7 acre for parking and access, but the school board contends that the city will need an additional 0.4 acre

Dorn explained that stormwater from the Allard Square senior living community and the roof of the new city hall building will drain to a treatment facility being built this summer behind the Pier 1 Imports store on Dorset Street.

However, the impervious surface, or area not penetrable by water, associated with the parking on the school easement portion of the project will increase.

“Any time you add or modify more than 5,000 square feet of impervious surface, you have to treat stormwater,” Dorn said. “The stormwater on the city easement, we have asked the school district to put stormwater into a common treatment facility on Rick Marcotte Central School property. Right now, stormwater from the school property is flowing into Potash Brook, then into Lake Champlain. The city would be paying for the project and paying to maintain that facility.”

Tensions mount

But emails between the board and one city councilor have increased tension over the last few weeks.

School board chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald emailed the city council on March 31 with the boards’ decision not to support the proposed stormwater plan.

“I am writing to let you know that the School Board decided on March 27 that it was not in the District’s best interest to renegotiate the September 5, 2018 Agreement for the Exchange of Rights and Interests in Real Property (the “Agreement”) with the city,” Fiztgerald wrote. “As part of its new municipal building project, the city asked the District to convey an additional 0.4-acre easement to the city. The city proposed to use this additional easement area for treatment of storm water run-off from the impervious surfaces to be constructed within the original 0.7-acre easement area and from the impervious surfaces on the remainder of the Marcotte Central School campus.”

Fitzgerald went on to say that the negotiations leading up to the Sept. 5, 2018 agreement were “extensive and time-consuming”, and that the memorandum of understanding contained nothing about an additional easement for stormwater. She also wrote that the intent of the memorandum and the agreement was that the city’s treatment of stormwater runoff from the school property would be a “significant benefit to the (school) district”.

“At the April 25, 2018 meeting of the City-School District Subcommittee, the city represented that it would treat any storm water run-off that results from both the new city parking lot and the reconfiguration of the Marcotte Central School’s parking lots within the 0.7-acre city easement area,” Fitzgerald wrote.

The board chair added that an additional easement for over 50 percent more land from the Central School property would “lead to the district losing access to approximately 10 percent of the area of the Marcotte Central School property.

“We recognize the potential need to address new storm water regulations on all our school properties, presumably by October 1, 2023, but anticipate much discussion of funding at the state level and possible outcomes of our own Master Planning and Visioning work which may impact future needs and requirements,” Fitzgerald wrote.

She added that there are significant bond issues and possible school projects ahead as part of the Master Planning and Visioning work, including new school buildings.

“Both the council and the school board anticipate significant bond issues in the near future that will require strong community support,” she wrote to the council. “We believe it is in the community’s best interest and that we will be more likely to have the community’s support for our future endeavors if we continue to work together to complete the land exchange as contemplated by the September 5, 2018 Agreement.”

Earlier email

The issue was informed by an email from school board member Bridget Burkhardt to City Council Chair Helen Riehle on Feb. 20. Burkhardt lists several concerns regarding the message she feels the school district takes away from its interactions with the council. Those messages include, in her words, that the district “is an impediment to the city’s plan for the community”, that it is expensive, that “school property is a resource the city can dip into to solve its problems”, and that “the school board and school administration are easily manipulated and manipulating them is easier than treating them like partners and actually collaborating with them.” 

Burkhardt offered examples for each statement, such as moving the public library out of the high school to the University Mall, “many, many canceled meetings,” and assurances from the city not to worry about the stormwater plan for 180 Market Street. She also said that Superintendent David Young has been attempting to talk with city staff for months about protecting land for potential expansion of schools should the Master Planning and Visioning necessitate that, as well as whether housing planned in the city will produce more students than the school system can handle.

“He has been shut down and/or ignored consistently,” Burkhardt wrote. “These messages and interactions make building trust between the two entities very challenging, and without that trust, collaboration is in turn very challenging.”

Burkhardt said the communication, connection and action the council is now asking for is what the school board has been asking of the council for months.

Fitzgerald forwarded Burkhardt’s email to the council, as well as to Dorn and Young, on March 4.

Hurt feelings

That email, along with Fitzgerald’s regarding the board’s decision not to support the new stormwater plan, prompted City Councilor Meaghan Emery to write an extensive response, which she read into the record at the April 1 city council meeting.

“I am writing as a sole councilor in response,” Emery wrote. “First, I wish to express my disappointment.”

Emery went on to detail her disappointment that the board made the decision not to support the stormwater change, and that there is not better communication between the board and the council. She also said she was disappointed that Riehle’s effort to achieve better communication with the school board by reaching out to Burkhardt was met with Burkhardt’s email.

“The letter does not solve the issue, only compounds it,” Emery wrote, “especially because it is full of misconceptions, inaccuracies, and misplaced priorities.”

She goes on to dispel and clarify Burkhardt’s assertions, saying that the city did NOT move the library out of a self-centered interest without regard for the impact on the schools.

“We moved the library, based on the recommendation of our City Manager who had met with library staff after four days of lockdowns in which not only students and teachers were locked in small, dark rooms with buckets, but also librarians, moms with young children and elderly folks who happened to be in the PUBLIC library at the time,” she wrote.

She also wrote that she “could not think of a time when a councilor publicly claimed that our schools are too expensive. Please fill us in, because I only recall spending evenings at school board meetings at the Middle School and writing letters to the local papers in defense of the schools, and in support of the school budget and of the value of the education our children are receiving.”

Emery did acknowledge that more communication and discussion between the council and the board is necessary. She also said that perhaps more information could have been received.

“I am willing to accept that people jumped to assumptions based on the limited information they had,” Emery wrote. “However, the problem is as I see it – and which I see as necessary to see as a problem that needs to be fixed – is that people did not have enough information in order to jump to a good and well-informed assumption. We as board members have traditionally relied on our staff and on our chairs to keep the information flow regular and accurate. This may not, it seems, be enough, and especially not at a time when the asks we are asking are high as we move the community forward.”

In closing, Emery wrote that she would save more points for the joint meeting.

“Our residents are counting on us, and it is imperative that we do so. Thank you for your hard work and service to this wonderful city,” she wrote.

A much-needed meeting

In a phone interview Monday, School board chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald said she could not speak to any tension between the council and her board, but is eager to meet with the council on April 22.

“We always look forward to meeting with the council and discussing our priorities,” she said. “I can’t speak for Meaghan and I’m not sure what is motivating her, but we’re both stewards of our respective community assets. She has a right to her opinion. We respect that and we plan to move forward.”

City Manager Kevin Dorn said he is hopeful a solution can be reached.

“It’s stormwater and it has to be treated,” he said. “This has to be done at some point. We’ll work this out.”

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