Edmunds Middle School can’t accept students with limited mobility because the 111-year-old building doesn’t have an elevator. By sending handicapped children to Hunt, the district’s other middle school, the Burlington School District maintains that it’s in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
That rationale was challenged by a lawyer at a crowded — and sometimes heated — Burlington school board committee meeting last week. Sam Abel-Palmer, a staff attorney for Vermont Legal Aid, said that by shipping students off to certain buildings or parts of a building, the school system effectively segregates them from the larger school population.
“The issue I was raising is very specific to the fact that Burlington has only two middle schools, so by not having one facility compliant, it has the effect of segregating everyone else into one school,” Abel-Palmer said after the meeting of the school board’s infrastructure and technology committee.
But legal opinions are just that, opinions, said School Board Chair Fred Lane in an interview after the meeting.
Deborah Lisi-Baker, the executive director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living, made a different point: “You can’t say you’re in compliance when you haven’t done the basics of sitting down with the community to figure out what’s doable,” she said at the meeting. Lisi-Baker added that the school district should consider incremental steps to improve accessibility at Edmunds.
The school district is expecting a feasibility report this week, which will estimate the cost of adding one elevator to Edmunds Middle School, Burlington School District Superintendent Jeanne Collins said in a later interview.
After the district receives the estimate for adding the elevator to Edmunds, the school district will consider how to pay for repairs to the 19th-century building. Bonding hasn’t yet been discussed, Collins said. “We’re focusing on finding nonlocal taxpayer money,” such as federal stimulus funds. She added, “That could change in the future.”
Several children were among those who spoke in support of improvements. Some cited their desire to attend Edmunds Middle School with Ben Wood-Lewis, the third-grade son of Front Porch Forum founder Michael Wood-Lewis, who had encouraged community members to attend the meeting. Ben was born with cerebral palsy and currently attends Champlain Elementary. He’ll be sent to Hunt Middle School if Edmunds isn’t made accessible.