Burlington Residents Make a Final Push for the High School Bond | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Burlington Residents Make a Final Push for the High School Bond


Published October 31, 2022 at 9:01 p.m.

A honk-and-wave event last week in Burlington - ALISON NOVAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Alison Novak ©️ Seven Days
  • A honk-and-wave event last week in Burlington
Last Thursday evening, around 20 community members gathered on the sidewalk in front of Burlington’s North Avenue Alliance Church with signs bearing a message in all caps: WE NEED A HIGH SCHOOL. VOTE YES.

The group — a mix of school commissioners, parents, students and a person dressed as the high school's Seahorse mascot rumored to be school board chair Clare Wool — waved their signs at cars cruising up and down North Avenue and exiting the Burlington Beltline. Every few minutes, a driver pounded their horn and waved a fist in the air, prompting the sign holders to break into cheers.

The honk-and-wave was one of several events Burlington community members and school leaders have held in recent weeks to encourage voters to say yes on Election Day to a $165 million bond to build a new high school and technical center. The project is necessary, the school district says, after high levels of airborne PCBs were found on its Institute Road campus in 2020. Since March 2021, Burlington teens have been attending class downtown in a renovated former Macy’s department store.

School commissioner Monika Ivancic at a honk-and-wave event - ALISON NOVAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Alison Novak ©️ Seven Days
  • School commissioner Monika Ivancic at a honk-and-wave event
In the lead-up to the vote, school board members, administrators and residents are making a concerted push to get the bond passed, using newspaper ads, lawn signs, grassroots organizing efforts, and conversations over coffee and on social media. Signs urging voters to reject the bond have also popped up, but the opposition appears to be far less organized.

Over the past two months, district representatives have presented at the city’s six Neighborhood Planning Assemblies, trying to convince residents that voting in favor of the bond is a good decision, despite what is likely to be a significant increase in their taxes. The district has held evening town halls to answer voters' questions, and superintendent Tom Flanagan has held several early morning, informal gatherings at local cafés.

The bond would pay for building demolition and remediation of the New North End school campus, as well as construction of a new facility. If the bond passes, the district hopes to open the new school in the fall of 2025.

The district's message to voters includes four major points: A thriving high school is necessary for a healthy community; the proposed costs of the new high school are in line with what other new high schools in New England have cost; the current Institute Road building is unsalvageable; and the newly
updated school funding formula, approved by the legislature this year, will eventually offset some of the tax impact of the bond.

The school district also announced at an October 13 press conference that it intends to sue Monsanto, the company that manufactured PCBs until 1979. Any money recouped in a lawsuit would help pay for the new building and decrease the burden on taxpayers, superintendent Flanagan said.

The 10 state lawmakers who represent Burlington are also urging residents to vote yes on the bond. While the cost of living in the city is rising at an unsustainable pace, the legislators wrote in an ad on Front Porch Forum earlier this month, not building a new high school won't improve affordability.

“The school board has worked — with public input — to develop a cost-effective plan,” the legislators wrote. “A high school isn’t a luxury. Please vote yes.”
The school district has also placed one-page advertisements in two local newspapers — the North Avenue News and Seven Days — at a total cost of around $3,500. The district used general fund dollars to pay for those ads and plans to file a report with the Vermont Secretary of State once it has received final advertising invoices, district spokesperson Russ Elek said.

The Burlington Students Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 1996 as a way for community members to make tax-deductible donations to support district initiatives, has also been revived to fundraise for the new school and provide financial support for get-out-the-vote efforts. To date, the foundation has received $62,500 in donations for the new building, according to its volunteer president Michelle Clark, whose three children graduated from Burlington High School. The foundation has spent around $4,900 on lawn signs, as well as postcards that volunteers are writing to Burlington residents encouraging them to approve the bond.

Some are using grassroots tactics to reach voters. Burlington parents Joanna Grossman and Mike Fisher hosted an online meeting earlier this month, during which they gave some 50 Burlington community members practical strategies for how to get out the vote.

“The goal was to take these people that … we knew cared and give them the tools that they needed to then go out and do that on-the-ground campaigning and advocacy,” Fisher said. 
At the meeting, Grossman, a political organizer who most recently ran Chris Winters' campaign for secretary of state, and Fisher, a former member of the Burlington School Board, shared specific language and techniques to talk to neighbors about the bond.

The organizers encouraged people to email and text friends, and post on Front Porch Forum and social media. Grossman and Fisher are also leading a phone-banking effort and sign-making party in the days before Election Day, and encouraging volunteers to stand outside the polls with signs on November 8.
Dueling signs in front of Burlington High School's Institute Road campus - ALISON NOVAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Alison Novak ©️ Seven Days
  • Dueling signs in front of Burlington High School's Institute Road campus
Meanwhile, dozens of signs have sprung up around town that say “Enough is Enough: Vote No on BH$,” with a dollar sign standing in for the “S.” Former Burlington school commissioner David Kirk, who represented the city’s New North End from 2014 to 2018, told Seven Days that he spent around $1,000 to purchase the signs and has enlisted volunteers to help him put them up.

In September, Kirk told Seven Days he would likely vote against the school bond because of its high price tag, which would raise his taxes and possibly drive him out of the city.

In a phone interview last Thursday, Kirk said he believes Burlington needs a new high school but thinks the school district should have sought more community input in arriving at the final design and cost. Kirk said he was rebuffed by school board members when he asked to be involved in the process.

Kirk had a rocky tenure when he served on the board. In the fall of 2016, he came under fire for posting racist memes to Facebook. He apologized but refused to resign. Instead he served out his term and did not run for reelection in 2018.
Kirk said he’s been open about his opposition to the bond and believes it’s important that there is a dissenting voice in the conversation.

“People have to be allowed to have an opinion,” he said. “Because if we’re all lemmings, we’re all going to walk off the cliff.”

Burlington students — the group that will be most directly impacted by the vote — have also been part of the discussion. At an online forum for community members on October 13, three high schoolers presented a slideshow about what it is like to attend class in a former department store. Nico Hochanadel, Esther Lokossou and Gillian Fairfax spoke about the deficiencies they see in the temporary downtown high school.

They said the windowless space is loud and distracting; the facilities are inadequate for doing science labs; the escalators have been broken for much of the school year, forcing the students to use cramped stairways; the Wi-Fi isn’t reliable; and the makeshift lunch room is awkward to navigate and provides limited food options.
Participants in Burlington High School’s City & Lake Semester — a program that engages students in project-based learning to explore issues affecting the city — also offered their thoughts on the bond last week.

“There’s not really any other solution” but to build a new high school, junior Reid Hathaway said. “The situation sucks, but it’s unescapable.”

Being in a former Macy’s has been harmful for students’ mental health, senior Rosalie Brown said. She believes it's also harmful for the city.

"If you want families with children to live in Burlington," Brown said, "then you have to have a high school."