The Burlington School Board ordered Superintendent of Schools Yaw Obeng to halt construction plans for two new preschool buildings after a divisive discussion that went on for more than an hour Tuesday night.
The board voted 7-3 in support of a resolution that directed Obeng to stop spending money and stop developing plans for the proposed South End and North End preschool centers after parents and taxpayers complained that the projects were pushed forward without voter approval.
Supporters, including Obeng, had countered that the buildings were within the scope of a $19 million school improvement bond, framed largely as funding for deferred maintenance, that voters approved at the polls in 2017.
The resolution mirrored the view of critics who said they want more time to consider the addition of two new structures to the district’s already large real estate portfolio, which includes 10 school buildings.
It stated that the board "is mindful of retaining the trust of the City’s voters and is concerned that use of the Bond proceeds for such new construction rather than for capital improvements at existing district buildings may compromise such trust."
Opposition has been building since April when many parents and teachers first became aware of the plans, in some cases after seeing stakes in the ground. Construction on the two structures was set to start as soon as August, at a cost of about $8.75 million.
The passage of the resolution was a win for a slate of new board members who were elected in March and appear to be taking a tighter approach to managing the district than the former board majority.
Burlington school board vice chair Jeff Wick (left) and chair Clare Wool
The new members sparred with some veteran board members who spoke in favor of the proposed preschool buildings. While the process that led to the proposed construction wasn’t perfect, those veteran board members argued, it would be financially irresponsible to freeze plans now after several hundred thousand of dollars has been spent on architectural and engineering work.
Supporters of the projects also said calling a halt would be a case of micromanaging the superintendent.
Board chair Clare Wool, who was elected by Ward 6 voters in March, disagreed.
“We have not engaged this community in a manner that is respectful and that asserts trust in this district,” said Wool, who declined to vote as chair but said she supported the resolution.
Mike Fisher of Ward 5, another new board member, supported the resolution and said that the bond vote did not justify the preschool centers. "When this was put to the voters, two new buildings were not part of the plan," he said.
The resolution directs the superintendent to present to the board a plan to address deferred maintenance and handicap access issues at the district’s existing school buildings.
Critics of the resolution framed it as a step backwards for kids and for the board’s governance style.
Ryan McLaren, representing the Central District, said the resolution does not provide clarity and leaves the superintendent little sense of which operational duties he can undertake without the board’s approval. By "nitpicking specific operational issues," the board creates an environment where the superintendent cannot make decisions without fear of being undercut or second-guessed, McLaren said.
"That is not a functioning way to operate a system," he said. "It’s not.”
McLaren also said that the halt could mean a delay of several years in addressing the district’s waitlist for preschool slots. "It means 30-plus needy kids will not have access to pre-K. For two years," he said.
Board member Martine Gulick, who was elected in March by Ward 4 voters, bristled at that inference: “I refuse to be accused of denying preschool right now to children. That’s not what we’re doing. That’s not an accurate statement.”
The resolution is a "pause to take a breather and do this right," Gulick said.
Three board members voted against the resolution: McLaren, North District rep Mark Barlow and Liz Curry of Ward 3. Eric Gorman of Ward 1 abstained, as did Wool.
Curry said the motion went against equity for children and said she was disappointed that some new commissioners came in "with their minds made up." She commended Obeng for showing patience amid commentary "that at times has risen to the level of vitriol."
During the discussion, Obeng calmly responded to questions several times. He also presented multiple proposals that would have allowed for a delay or reconsideration of the buildings.
After the vote, he thanked the board for the "robust discussion" and asked a variety of questions about next steps for assembling improvement projects.
More than 50 people attended the meeting Tuesday at Lyman C. Hunt Middle School. Most spoke out against design aspects of the preschool buildings and said the public had wrongly been kept in the dark about them. A few speakers said the buildings were needed to add capacity to the current preschool classrooms that serve about 170 children.
Also Tuesday, McLaren announced that he is stepping down from the board because he has purchased a house in Essex and is planning to move there. Tuesday was his final meeting. His term was supposed to run through 2019.