Middle schoolers whiz through the halls, laughing and talking, books in their swinging hands. It’s a change of period at Edmunds Middle School, and the students are pounding up and down stairs to make it to their classes on time.
Most of them may not give the 19th-century building’s layout a second thought. But Burlington resident and parent Michael Wood-Lewis does. His oldest child uses a wheelchair. Chris Giard, director of property services for the Burlington School District, is winding up a tour of the property, pointing out to Wood-Lewis why students with mobility problems can’t attend the Edmunds schools: stairs, stairs and more stairs.
For much of the tour, Wood-Lewis — the founder and owner of neighborhood email listserv Front Porch Forum — has been quiet. But in the stairwell, pausing amid the mingling scents of cafeteria food and stale gymnasium, he voices the question he’s been asking since his third-grader, who was born with cerebral palsy, first entered the school system: When will the Edmunds schools be made accessible to people with disabilities?
“This is the most prominent school in the state of Vermont, and yet we’re segregating our kids,” Wood-Lewis tells Giard. His voice contains a touch of resignation, as if he may not expect an answer. “Everyone has been kind, but when is it going to get done?”
Giard nods and looks sympathetic. It’s a reaction Wood-Lewis is accustomed to. After all, as he said in an earlier interview in his home, “No one is going to go on the record saying they are against children in wheelchairs going to school.”
But supporting accessibility in principle is one thing. Coughing up the money to make it a reality is another, especially in an increasingly alarming recession. Some would say this is the worst possible time to talk about making a ramshackle historic building handicapped-accessible. Others would say it’s the best time, because this is a test case of sorts: As budgets tighten, will the concerns of minorities fall by the wayside?
One thing is for sure: With municipalities facing shortfalls, voters aren’t in the mood to approve large expenditures. The City of Burlington has advised the school board to keep its bond item — which will be put to voters on March 3 — below $10 million. A bond in the single-digit millions is more likely to meet voter approval, says city administrator Jonathan Leopold.
To many, the accessibility issue is invisible. It’s the sort of thing parents might only discover when they hear their child, who’s headed to Edmunds for middle school, lament that a friend in a wheelchair has to be bussed across town instead. Burlington School District Superintendent Jeanne Collins says making Edmunds accessible is “of critical importance” to the school board. And the larger community? “A small portion” agrees the issue is urgent, she estimates.
The issue was highlighted last year when the district ran an audit to tally the shortcomings of its buildings. The result was the original whopping $226 million bond proposal — the largest in the district’s history. The school district now estimates the tab for fixing Edmunds’ accessibility issues alone could reach $15 million.
The need for major repairs was no news to Giard. He says that when he started his job in 2001, his first reaction to the schools’ condition was, “Oh, my God.”
During the winter, Giard is often up at night, checking the temperatures of the schools from his home computer to make sure the heat is working. During one cold spell this year, a frozen water line kept part of Flynn Elementary School at 50 to 58 degrees.
Collins agrees the physical condition of Burlington schools shows “significant neglect.” “Where we have tried to make do with minimal resources, we found ourselves in a reactive position to keep the schools going,” she says. ‘When you are reactive, becoming ADA-compliant becomes lower on the list.”
Particularly this year. The hefty bond proposal, introduced when the economy was already showing signs of weakness, shocked many voters into voicing opposition. The item never made it to the ballot, and the school board went back to the drawing board. “It was a process of $226 million, then $92 million, then $36 million, then whatever you can give us,” says board member Jurij Homziak.
The $9.75 million bond currently offered for voters’ approval passes Leopold’s lean-times single-digit test. It would address some pressing needs: buying boilers for Flynn and Barnes elementary schools, and a new fire alarm system for Smith Elementary.
“The schools that rose to the top are schools that haven’t received any money,” says school board member Fred Lane. “It’s never easy to turn to a specific community and say, ‘We have to wait on this.’”
But Wood-Lewis points out that this isn’t the first time opening Edmunds’ doors to all students has been postponed. “Accessibility is the bridesmaid but never the bride,” he says. “Every year, accessibility falls off the list.”
All that’s left of the original plan to revamp Edmunds is $10,000 tucked into the school budget to fund an architect’s study. And if the school budget fails to pass? Wood-Lewis asks Giard, during the school tour. Giard vows to dig $10,000 out of his budget to get the study done.
Giard estimates retrofitting Edmunds would run from $10 million to $15 million, and might include such major steps as gutting the school’s central building, then leveling around it to make a ramped entrance possible. Once the work does start, he says, it should be done in one go, because piecemeal solutions might add to the eventual cost.
With that price tag, why not just start fresh with a new school?
“We researched selling the building, but [George] Edmunds gave the deed to the City of Burlington,” Giard explains. “It has to be used for educational purposes. If we sell it, the money has to go to the Edmunds family.”
Given Edmunds’ historic status — the middle school was built in 1898, the other sections in 1929 — demolition isn’t an option, and alterations are costly. For instance, an elevator added to the exterior of the buildings would violate the schools’ historic integrity. Any elevator must go inside the school, potentially taking up valuable classroom space.
Giard opens the door to an electrical closet that he envisions will become the middle school’s elevator shaft. Below the school’s original pressed-tin ceiling, wires snake their way across the floor and up the wall. The building’s electrical system will need to be overhauled, too, he says, because it can’t currently handle the load from an elevator. Indeed, in some classrooms only two or three outlets can be used at once, Giard adds.
To be sure, Burlington isn’t the only Vermont school district dealing with these issues, say school administrators. Many of the state’s schools were built 50 to 70 years ago or more, when design for the disabled wasn’t a consideration. At St. Albans City School, where Champlain Elementary principal Leslie Colomb worked until last year, “we were constantly looking at accessibility issues,” she says.
Superintendent Collins assures that the school district is not currently violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires public buildings to be accessible to people with disabilities. “As long as we are able to provide a program that is equivalent to the program in that building and the student isn’t denied access to that education, then we are compliant,” she explains. “We have Hunt Middle School, which has an equivalent program to Edmunds, and five other elementary schools that are equivalent.”
None of that is much consolation to Wood-Lewis. He knows that if Edmunds remains inaccessible to people with disabilities a few years on, his son will attend Hunt Middle School while his friends and classmates enter sixth grade at Edmunds Middle. And, while Wood-Lewis often prefaces his questions about school accessibility by saying that he and his wife Valerie have been advocating for their son for the past six years, he stresses that the issue isn’t just about one child.
Other parents agree. “To say to any student, ‘Well, we’ll give you an equal educational experience but in a separate school,’ it’s necessarily unequal and unfair to the student,” says Patrick Halladay, whose son is a classmate of Wood-Lewis’ son. Plus, “It’s a disadvantage to the rest of the kids.” Halladay, a stay-at-home dad and part-time educational consultant, says his son has benefited from a school that includes children with disabilities because it helps develop “an understanding of difference. [Children] are forced out of a comfort zone and consider lots of ways things could be done.”
Advocates for the disabled say that kids who have to meet all-new classmates in middle school face emotional and psychological challenges. “For people with mobility issues, it’s not just physical access,” remarks Connie Curtin, former codirector of the Vermont Family Network, a Williston-based organization that helps advocate for families and individuals with special needs. “Kids with disabilities often have to struggle making friends and connecting” — especially in those difficult preteen years when children aren’t as accepting and supportive, Curtin points out.
That’s echoed by Miriam Stoll, a Burlington parent and psychologist who specializes in special education for the Chittenden South Supervisory Union. One of her children has Williams Syndrome, a rare disorder that can cause learning disabilities. Although her daughter doesn’t have mobility issues, Stoll says, speaking hypothetically, that if she had to attend a different school from her friends, “it would rip her support system from under her. She would go to a school where no one knew her. It would set her back in innumerable ways, emotionally and academically.”
Of course, Giard points out, Edmunds’ many stairs — the middle school has five levels, the elementary school three — don’t just disadvantage disabled students. Kids who break their legs skiing have to take classes in the middle-school library. School employees strain to lug equipment up and down. And anyone who wants to enter the building — from parents to First Night celebrants to voters — has to face the steps.
Jill Allen, an adult who uses a wheelchair, recalls the problems she had attending a First Night event. Friends had told her the middle-school gym was accessible through an elevator — the only one in the school. But Allen needed to find a custodian to operate it, and after she got stuck in the elevator, friends had to recall the custodian to free her. (The school has since replaced the elevator with a better-functioning model, Giard says.)
“When I come up against architectural barriers, I start feeling like the builders didn’t want me there, and by extension, the community doesn’t want me there either,” Allen says.
Improving access would benefit the entire community, argues Erika Nestor, whose daughter suffered brain damage from a near-drowning incident as a toddler and now uses a wheelchair. Her family moved out for several months last year to complete extensive accessibility renovations to their home, which included grading the driveway and creating a ground-floor bedroom in the garage and a handicapped-accessible bathroom. “Once the changes are made, you realize it helps a much greater population,” says Nestor, “It becomes useful to anyone who gets injured, or needs to move equipment into the building.”
Nestor’s daughter attends Champlain Elementary, which is accessible to students in wheelchairs, though only through the back entrance. And often families that need to use that entrance arrive to find the doors locked, says Parm Padgett, copresident of the Champlain Elementary PTO.
“It’s not very friendly,” she points out. “You’re not mingling with the other students . . .You aren’t hanging out with those families, because you are coming in the back door.”
She and her husband Jeffrey, who owns Burlington-based Engineered Solutions, have joined other families to do something about that. Jeffrey Padgett is donating his time to work on a plan for a front entrance ramp. Once there’s an estimate for the work, Padgett plans to bring the project to the PTO and begin fundraising from the community.
Yet there’s the niggling question of whether this project shouldn’t really be funded by the school district. “It’s kind of shameful that we’re in this situation,” Padgett says. “I don’t feel like the school district doesn’t have the desire to do it, but they are juggling so many things. They are putting out fires, and it’s not really a fire at this school.”
City councilor Ed Adrian is one public official who doesn’t think the price of opening up Edmunds — and fixing problems such as its aged electrical system — is too high. A city needs safe, up-to-date schools to attract families and middle-class residents, he says.
“Hoover did the wrong thing to say the government should cut back on spending,” Adrian declares. Funding ADA projects would bring in “local contractors and local jobs, and that helps stimulate the local economy.” Yet he admits that “whether it’s economically responsible — that’s a moving ball, given the time, the economy, and if the mood of the public is in order to support these things.”
City Councilor Karen Paul also expresses disappointment that Edmunds’ problems won’t be fixed this year, saying, “Equal access at the schools, whether you are able to walk or not, is at the heart of our community. I feel it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the only thing.”
Superintendent Collins hopes President Obama’s stimulus plan will provide some funding for improving school facilities, and she’s already working on how to access those funds should they become available. “There’s no guarantee, but the sense is very high that it’s likely,” she says.
In a time that’s harsh on everyone, it may be all too easy to ignore the concerns of a minority. Some parents of children with disabilities say they are trying to balance their desire for change against the fear of resentment from other Burlington taxpayers.
“It’s kind of like you are looking for allies, because when you are a parent of a child with a disability, it seems selfish and self-centered to ask for these things,” Nestor says. “I recognize what a drain on the system it is, and part of me feels badly for that. But is it too much to ask to be able to enter the front door instead of the back door?”