School officials will go back to the drawing board on both a new budget and bond article following the defeat of both proposals on Town Meeting Day.
Citizens for an Affordable South Burlington, Inc., a political action committee (PAC) that created “Vote No” signs and fliers, will remain engaged in the conversation, according to the PAC’s director, John Stern.
On March 3, voters voiced their opposition in a vote of 4,711 - 3,561 on the budget and 6,514 - 1,712 on the school bond article for a $209.6 million – before interest – joint middle/high school and athletic complex.
The budget would have been a 7.96% increase over Fiscal Year 2020. It would have accounted for an estimated 11.22% tax rate increase over the previous budget.
Now, school officials have up to 30 days from the vote to regroup and present residents with a revised proposal. The board was to be presented a revised budget during its Wednesday, March 11, meeting, Superintendent David Young said. They must approve a proposal before March 18 so it can be warned for an April 2 vote, he added.
“We’re not rushing because we want to rush,” he said. “We are required to move along in accordance with the law.”
As for the building proposal, Young said the board is currently listening to the public but has no set timeline for a new ask. School board members have said the district must do something to address aging infrastructure in the middle and high schools, as well as capacity, safety and accessibility concerns.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” school board member Brian Minier said during a March 4 meeting. “We put forward what we thought was best, it flopped, and so let’s figure out what we’re going to do together. I’d like people to tell us why ‘no’ to this one and what’s a ‘yes.’”
Community members have questioned whether renovations or other smaller projects would suffice.
“We obviously have feedback in terms of a vote,” board clerk Bridget Burkhardt said during the March 4 school board meeting. “We need to determine a process for really getting constructive feedback about what the community would support.”
Board members discussed creating a survey or hosting listening sessions with the public.
Burkhardt asked how to increase community engagement, citing light attendance at some of the district’s visioning and communication sessions.
Attendee Kathleen Easton weighed in, “It’s hard to get people to turn out until they feel a sense of urgency.” She added that there was now a sense of urgency around the issue.
Resident Dan Emmons said there was a lack of engagement, noting he was personally “guilty” of it.
“I was aware of all this going on, wanted to get involved, but too busy in my life to do that,” he said. “We have enough people right now that are paying attention. Now is the time to make sure that people do get engaged.”
Attendee Gerry Silversteen asked the board why it couldn’t have come to the community with an agenda vote including a new construction item and price and a renovation item and price.
“You’re putting people in harm’s way, you’re putting people who could no longer afford to live in the community if you do a serial progression of the base budget added to the bond,” he said. “This is more than affordability, this is survivability.”
Silversteen suggested the school create a public survey with options to ask residents whether they would prioritize a renovation or new construction project.
Kristie Stern – married to the PAC Director John Stern – suggested the district supply residents with a list of needed infrastructure replacements, cost estimates and the number of years the current systems will function. Minier said the board had a reno-only cost estimate for $55 million, but that the district would still have to deal with overcapacity and might have to lose tuition students.
Tuition students bring the district about $2.5-3 million annually in revenue, Minier said.
Kristie asked what the cost of tuition students was relative to the revenue.
“They are not a source of profit, but they are a source of breadth of programming because of the additional scale they bring to us,” Burkhardt said, noting the tuition is meant to cover the expense of the students.
She added that the district also had to be mindful of the “bubble of growing elementary enrollment” that will be headed up to the middle and high schools.
Another suggestion included increasing the size of the school board to gain additional members to expand voices and perspectives. Easton also suggested coordination between the city and school to identify and communicate future large projects.
City Councilor Thomas Chittenden – speaking on his own behalf – said that the council would be resuming discussions on a recreation center proposal and asking the community to weigh in.
Resident Annie Leupp asked the board to “think outside the box” on its next proposal, noting the previous ask was too much for the city’s residential base to cover.
“I have seen people literally in tears and starting to look into the future as to what are they going to do when they lose their home,” she said.
Fitzgerald replied that the board heard those concerns. She added that during an April 2019 Master Planning and Visioning presentation eight school options – including renovation only – were discussed alongside preliminary cost estimates, including some around $170 million. Exit interviews completed by attendees showed support for option eight, the joint middle/high school.
“We hear you loud and clear,” Fitzgerald said to Leupp. “It was not for lack of compassion or an understanding of the impact, it was to get what we thought was the best cost-benefit alternative and get feedback from the community vis-a-vis the ballot.”
“How the board moves forward is going to be delicate,” Young told The Other Paper. “The board has no plan right now other than listening.”