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Board May Put Barnes Back on the Chopping Block

Local Matters


Published November 15, 2005 at 9:58 p.m.

BURLINGTON -- Some Old North End residents, city councilors and school board members are expressing their outrage over a proposal, delivered to the board November 8, that calls for closing Lawrence Barnes and moving its students to three other city schools. At least one school board member has called for the resignation of former Superintendent Lyman Amsden, who now works as a consultant to the district and proposed the idea.

Amsden's proposal also calls for selling the district's Taft and Ira Allen buildings, converting Barnes into a community and educational center, and turning H.O. Wheeler into a district-wide magnet school for technology and foreign languages. The exact cost savings to the district will depend upon what the two buildings sell for, and requires approval by the city council. School Board Finance Committee Chairman Fred Lane estimates that if the sale goes through, it could save the district as much as $400,000 a year.

The school restructuring plan calls for moving 40 students from Barnes to C.P. Smith, 30 to Champlain and 70 to Edmunds. Such a plan would be consistent with Amsden's previously stated strategy for boosting achievement levels among low-income students by creating a more diverse socioeconomic mix in all the city's elementary schools.

"From my perspective, I really think this is driven by Lyman's philosophical belief that the kids at Barnes can do better," says Lane. "One of the things we consistently see is that kids at Barnes do not compete on an equal basis with other students in the district, and to some extent, Wheeler as well. So the question becomes, what is the best way to improve the chances for those kids?"

But the timing of Amsden's presentation couldn't have been more ironic. Earlier that evening, about two dozen activists attended the board meeting to show their support for keeping the two Old North End schools open, and delivered a petition to that effect with more than 500 signatures. During the public comment period, about a dozen community members also spoke in favor of a resolution to pay Burlington paraeducators a livable wage, a measure similar to the one the City Council had adopted unanimously a week earlier. It was only after the board narrowly defeated the livable-wage resolution by a 7-to-5 margin and most of the community members had gone home that Amsden handed out his school-closure memo.

The news spread the following day and immediately mobilized opposition throughout the Old North End, where many residents feel that their neighborhood schools are targeted for closure whenever budgets get tight. The idea to close Barnes and Wheeler first arose in April 2002 and resurfaced several months ago at a school board retreat.

Ward 2 board member Christopher Haessly echoed the sentiments of many Old North Enders who gathered at

a Neighborhood Planning Association meeting last week when he said he felt "completely blindsided" by the school-closure plan. Instead of presenting the board with several different options to mull over, "[Amsden] came back to us with a 'take-it-or-leave it' plan. He missed the mandate completely.

"I think people have lost faith in the leadership of the school board," Haessly adds. "These are folks who have always come out, time and time again to support the school budget on Town Meeting Day, and they feel like, 'This is the thanks we get, to close down our school?'"

But as Lane explains, the school board specifically asked Amsden to come up with ways to address its number-one priority: student inequity. Lane notes that the district has been facing decreasing enrollment for several years and owns too much property for its current enrollment. And, since Barnes is the smallest and most centrally located elementary school, it would be an ideal location for the administration's headquarters, its early education program and other neighborhood functions.

Lane also points out that Wheeler would remain open and become a centerpiece facility in the Old North End. He expects this proposal is only the first in what promises to be a long and heated debate.

According to Amsden's memorandum, the proposed reshuffling of students would result in the loss of five teachers, with a cost savings to the district of about $250,000.