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.

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