Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Coalition Delivers Open Letter, Initial Signatures to Board

At the School Board's budget hearing last night (December 20), the Burlington Coalition for Community Schools delivered the Open Letter (below), along with all the signatures we have received in the first two days. We continue to encourage supporters of neighborhood schools to sign on to the letter.

The School Board also heard powerful testimony from staff and parents at several Burlington schools about the importance of having a full-time principal, social worker and librarian in each school.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Open Letter to Burlington School Board

The final version of this letter was delivered to the school board on January 3rd, 2006

We are writing to implore you to carefully examine your own top board priority:

Remove obstacles to the success of students from low-income families.

With this in mind, you may recall that at each of the recent public hearings, the board heard from countless Burlington residents from all wards who clearly and unequivocally expressed that removing any services from the Lawrence Barnes School would be in direct and irreparable conflict with this priority. The Barnes School serves an already disadvantaged and under-privileged student population. The recent board decision to further cut vital positions (the principal, social worker, and librarian) from this school would be to essentially place these students at even greater risk for academic and social failure. We as a community cannot afford to cut any services from a school that is already precariously stretching limited resources to meet the diverse and ever-changing needs of its unique student population.

We believe that cutting essential services to the Lawrence Barnes School in fact introduces numerous obstacles into the lives of its students, ultimately creating widespread barriers to their overall success. We therefore encourage that the board reinstate services to Barnes through a moderate further increase in the tax rate or an equitable re-allocation of current resources across the board that would allow for all schools within the district to bear some of the burden for these cuts, and not solely Barnes, the school whose students can least afford any loss of services.

The Barnes School has already sustained significant cuts, although these were seemingly done quietly and without immediate public knowledge. In the last budget year, this school has lost a full-time behavior specialist and a full time registered nurse. Barnes students personally pay the price for those losses every day and can ill-afford further assaults to their already diminishing support system. Their academic success depends upon bolstering their support network, not slowly destroying it.

Particularly while children are in school and on the premises, Barnes requires the leadership from an on-site principal to make those executive and often emergency decisions needed in times of a personal or school-wide crisis. Sharing a principal places Barnes students in jeopardy should such a scenario arise.

Similarly, the social worker at Barnes reaches out not only to individual students but to their families and caregivers as well. Barnes families have a greater and more concentrated need for social work services than other schools serving children from more middle income families. Barnes was, in fact, the first elementary school to employ a school social worker. Cutting the social worker alone invariably unleashes an avalanche of obstacles to the success of Barnes children and their families. To tinker with their safety net is to undermine and devalue their potential for success.

Barnes students additionally require the services of a degreed librarian to truly champion and promote life long reading. Gains in literacy have consistently been much-lauded focal points of academic success. If we as a community truly believe this, then why would we cut the librarian from those students who inarguably need her services most?

Finally, with the recent ribbon-cutting of the North Street Revitalization Project, the neighborhood around Barnes School is, in fact, just beginning to truly feel good about itself. Let's support that positive momentum by strengthening our North Street school and thereby drawing more middle income families to relocate into the region. All Burlingtonians are ultimately stakeholders in ensuring that we get the full return on those millions of invested federal dollars, and a fully-supported Barnes School is integral to that success. Doing so creates a win-win situation for Barnes students, its surrounding community, and all of Burlington.

The current budget proposal is a slow and undignified death to Lawrence Barnes School and half of the children aged 5-11 living in the old North End. Restoring essential services is crucial for a school board truly committed to removing obstacles to success for lower income students. Community support for this is widespread across the city and is snowballing exponentially every day. The societal costs of not restoring services for Barnes students is undeniably far greater than $205,000. We ask that you not make the mistake of valuing a small cost savings over the ultimate success of Barnes' kids. The potential consequences are not worth it.

Naomi Almeleh
Kit Andrews
Kym Asam, LICSW
Tim Ashe, City Councilor
Lindol Atkins, President, Vermont AFL-CIO
David Bardaglio
Katherine Berkman
Cheryle Bilodeau, LICSW Burlington School Social Worker
Terry Bouricious
Kathy Bouton
Burlington Community Land Trust
Sharon Bushor, City Councilor
Betsy Cain, LICSW
Colin Campbell
Cara Caparelli
Ian Carleton, Burlington City Council President
Dave Cavanagh
Rabbi Joshua Chasan, Ohavi Zedek Synagogue
Mary Clay Thomas, Champlain College Adjunct Professor
Wendy Coe
Joanna Cole
Dean Corren
Andrew Crawford
Liz Curry
Tamara L. DiVasto
Johanna Leddy Donovan, State Legislator
Karen Donovan
Doug Dunbebin
Dr. Vivian Esparza, MD
Laurie Essig
Phil Fiermonte, City Councilor
Jules Fishelman
Paul Fleckenstein
Jim and Barbara Flint
Jason Ford
Mike Furze
Ginger Gillman
Lucy Gluck
Dr. Ann Goering, MD
Charlie Gottlieb, MSW
Tracy Greene, Spectrum Youth & Family Services
Jerry Greenfield
Arnie and Margaret Gundersen
Abby Hale, P.A.
Tom Hart, Baird Social Worker
Laban Hill
Wanda Hines
Doug Hoffer
Sharron Hopper
Dan Justice
René Kaczka-Vallière, Baird School Social Worker at Edmunds Middle School
Jessica K. Kell
Richard Kemp
Bob Kiss, State Legislator
Jane Knodell, City Councilor
Gary Kowalski
Connie Krosney
Catherine Lamb
Jim Lantz
Mark Larson, State Legislator
Lisa Lax
Michelle Lefkowitz
Jason Lorber, State Legislator
Erica Lustgarten
Erhard Mahnke
Nina McDonnell
Cheryl McDonough, City Councilor
Chris Meehan, Executive Director, Peace and Justice Center
Ralph Montefusco, Vice President, Champlain Valley Labor Council AFL-CIO
David Nestor
Erika Nestor, Past PTO chair of Edmunds Elementary
Networks, Inc.
Roddy O'Neil Cleary
Meghan O'Rourke
Allen Parker
Melissa Parker, Barnes PTO President
Megan Peek
Brian Pine
Barbara Prine
Gail Rafferty, LICSW, Director of Early Childhood Services, Baird Center for Children and Families
Jennifer Reay
Julie Richards, UVM Department of Social Work
Colin Robinson
Nick Robinson
Bob Sanders, Director, Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program
Lisa J. Schnell, Associate Professor of English, Director, Undergraduate Advising (English), Acting Director, John Dewey Honors Program, UVM
Judy Scott, Coordinator of Volunteer Services, Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program
Lila Shapero
Rachel Siegel
Erica Spiegel, ONE resident
Dr. Chris Staats, M.D.
Andrew Strauss
Rebecca Taylor
Zephyr Teachout
Fran Toomey, Ph.D., Developmental Psychologist, Speech and Language Pathologist, Special Educator, Professor Emeritus, St. Michael's College
Jim Trybus
Matt Trybus, Learning Services Specialist at University of Vermont
Tracey Tsugawa
Stuart Weiss
Tim Whiteford, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in Education, St. Michael's College
Elise Whittemore-Hill
Women of Color Alliance
Michael Wood-Lewis
David Zuckerman, State Legislator

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Budget Keeps Barnes Open

Last night the School Board approved a budget which will keep Barnes open as a K-5 for the next school year, but will cut most of the Barnes administration (principal, social worker, librarian), with the administration of Barnes to be done by the Wheeler administration.

It is a victory that we were able to put enough pressure on the board to keep Barnes open, however there are obviously still lots of issues, both in terms of how the school will function with shared administration and in terms of the long-term commitment of Burlington to community schools. We will be having another coalition meeting on Saturday to discuss these and other issues.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Burlington Coalition for Community Schools Statement to School Board, December 12, 2005

The Burlington Coalition for Community Schools urges the School Board not to adopt the Finance Committee's proposal to make Barnes into half a school. This proposal is simply not necessary from a budgetary standpoint. With the good news on health insurance costs, the state tax rate, and Fletcher Allen's interest in renewing its lease at the Ira Allen Building, Acting Superintendent Collins has said that the school board should be able to come up with a budget that keeps Barnes as a K-5 school for the coming school year, with either no or a minimal increase in taxes.

Turning Barnes into a K-2 undercuts the process of setting up a task force to look at achievement of students from low-income families by taking an important option (maintaining Barnes as a neighborhood K-5 school) off the table even before the process starts. Furthermore, this proposal completely fails to address the "equity" issue; if 3-5 graders from the Barnes neighborhood are allowed to attend any school in the district, wealthier parents will tend to move their children to the more "middle-class" schools which require a car to reach, while low-income families will likely send their children to Wheeler, which is in the neighborhood. Turning Barnes into a K-2 with no principal or clerical support essentially sets the school up to fail.

We are glad to see that the School Board is considering establishing a task force to look at the issue of academic achievement of students from low-income families; however, we have concerns about the process proposed by the Curriculum and Policy Committee. Under this proposal, one person (the President of the School Board) will appoint all 15 members of the task force; we have concerns that one person, who may already be committed to a particular outcome, can appoint a committee in a way that fairly and equitably represents all parts of the Burlington community. In particular, we want to make sure that both low-income parents from the Old North End, and front-line educators (teachers and paraeducators) who work at Barnes and Wheeler are represented on the task force. Additionally, we want to be sure that the work of the task force is both public and participatory, so that as many people as possible are allowed to participate in the process.

Finally, we continue to consider any proposal to fully or partially close Lawrence Barnes School to place an unfair burden on parents and residents of the Old North End, a working-class neighborhood which is the most racially and ethnically diverse in Vermont. Should such a proposal be voted in, we plan to immediately explore our options for legal action.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Don't sell Taft; don't close Barnes (BFP Editorial)

Published by the Burlington Free Press: Thursday, December 8, 2005

The Burlington School Board should put on hold a proposal to partially close Barnes Elementary School and sell "surplus" property specifically earmarked for educational purposes.

Instead, the board should take the time it needs to work with the public to create a comprehensive, long-term plan for improving education in the city while holding down costs for the taxpayers.

The board is considering selling the former Taft Elementary School, which was part of the estate Elihu Taft left to the school district in his 1927 will. That document also stipulated that the property should be used as a shelter for homeless men if the district no longer wanted it to serve a school function.

That's crystal clear.

Now the district might break or contort that proviso and sell the Taft building, which in combination with other changes, would save the district about $450,000. It was suggested to the Free Press recently that the Taft property could be converted to high-end condominiums or residential lofts.

That would be a mistake.

First, Elihu Taft left that valuable property to the district in good faith, making clear his desires for its uses. While it might be legally possible to break that commitment, it would be fundamentally wrong to abuse the trust Taft placed in the district in deeding the property.

More important, it would set an unfortunate precedent that could discourage Vermonters from making such generous gestures in the future. It's hard to imagine anyone's having much faith that the school district would follow his dying wishes after watching the fate of the Taft will.

The second problem with the board's plan is its call to partially close Barnes Elementary School in Burlington's Old North End. Putting aside a previous call to close the school and bus its students to other schools throughout the city, the board is now considering keeping grades kindergarten through second at Barnes and sending the students in grades three through fifth elsewhere. That measure would be temporary while the fate of the school is debated.

That, too, would be a mistake.

While the motive for closing Barnes is well meaning -- to improve the educational options for children in this largely low-income area -- it's clear that this school is more than a place of learning. It's a needed community center. For now, the school should stay fully open to serve its community.

The board means well by trying to raise the academic bar at Barnes Elementary and save taxpayers money.

But there haven't been the public discussions about the specifics or the long-term comprehensive vision needed to assure residents that the plan makes sense into the future.

The school board ought to slow down and continue the public debate on how best to hold down costs while improving education.