About 40 people attended a forum in the South Burlington High School cafeteria to learn more about the school district’s $209.6 million middle/high school and athletic complex proposal, Thursday night, Jan. 30.

School Board Clerk Bridget Burkhardt gave an hour-long presentation outlining the district’s study, planning process and proposal. Members of Dore & Whittier Architects, the school administration and board were on hand afterwards to answer questions.

“We understand this is a big investment for the community and we do not take that lightly,” said Burkhardt. “We believe that this proposal lays the groundwork for the district to continue to provide the education our community expects for its children over the next several decades and to give each of our students the best opportunity to meet the ends we as a community have set out for them - academic proficiency, lifelong learning, citizenship and personal development.”

Resident Ethan Joseph said he hoped the community forum would help him understand why the best time for construction is now.

“I come from a family of educators, my wife is an educator, so we always feel like we have a strong support for the schools,” Joseph said. “But this is just such a major task, so [we’re] really just trying to be as informed as possible.”

Joseph expressed that he thought Burkhardt did a “sufficient job” explaining the board’s process and proposal but was still unsure of how he would vote on Town Meeting Day.

“I’m still on the fence,” Jessica DeBiasio added. “They’ve clearly put a lot of thought and hard work into what makes sense.”

She noted her concerns about the debt and interest and wanted to know more about how the school was incorporating sustainability into its proposal.

Former Windsor School Board member and 10-year South Burlington resident Richard Slusky said, “I was a school board member for 10 years in another town and we built a high school in that town. I understand the difficulty of selling a project like this. But I am concerned about the magnitude of the cost.”

Slusky wondered if one of the buildings could be preserved rather than demolishing both the middle and high schools and constructing atop the current athletic fields. He was also unsure of the need for an athletic complex with the possibility of a future city indoor recreation facility.

“I don’t think I’ve ever voted against a school budget or a school construction project,” Slusky said, adding he has grandchildren in the district. “But this concerns me.”

The community forum did not change his thoughts on the proposal, he said, adding he wished there had been an opportunity for attendees to ask questions before the entire group.

“I’d like to hear what other people are thinking, what ideas they have,” Slusky said. “Having said that, I appreciate all of the work the school board has done, I know how hard this is, I’ve done it myself.”

Mike Parot also believed the proposal could be re-examined, thinking it might be possible to fix and modernize the high school at a lower cost. His concern was whether increased property taxes would “hurt the whole area.”

“I can see their point,” Parot said, following the presentation. “We want the best for the kids, but I don’t know, they can’t learn because the classrooms are the way they are now?”

Parot joined a group of residents after the forum to speak with Superintendent David Young. He said Young had some good points as well as some concerns.

“People were talking to him … most of it was just the price of the building and how much the taxes are going to go up for most of us,” he said. “It’s an aging population in South Burlington, a lot of us are on fixed incomes.”

Annie Leupp, who also spoke with Young, said she was concerned about the tax impact, especially with the current city-wide reappraisal.

“Another $1,500 per year is just too much to ask one individual to handle,” she said, alluding to the school proposal’s estimated average annual tax rate impact on a $350,000 home.

Roughly 50% of South Burlington residents are eligible for income sensitivity, according to Burkhardt.

Referring to the district’s projected tax impact analysis available on the district’s website, Burkhardt noted, “A homeowner with $50,000 in income should expect to pay $313.01 more per year on average over 32 years, with a peak of $447.04 in year three based on this project only. A homeowner with $136,500 or more in income with a $350,000 house should expect to pay $1,500.01 on average per year over 32 years with a peak of $2,143.01 in year three.”

Leupp worried about how the tax rate impact might affect South Burlington’s renters.

“Landlords aren’t going to see a penny of [the tax impact] but the renters are going to see a much bigger increase in their overall expenditures,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s fair for the renters to have to deal with this either.”

Leupp said she’d likely vote “no” on the bond article.

School Board reaction

School Board Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald said the board received “great questions” and that she was pleased with the turnout.

“I think people are excited about the project,” she said. “Like I’ve said before, the cost is significant, and I think people are taking the time to get informed about the process the board went to that came to this recommendation.”

For more detailed information on the district’s new building proposal and the bond, see articles in The Other Paper’s Jan. 9 and 23 issues. The next community forum is Feb. 12, 7 to 9 p.m., at the SBHS Cafeteria 2. Drop-in tours are also being held at the high school and middle school. A complete list of dates and times is available on the district’s website.

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