South Burlington residents to vote on expanded school classrooms

South Burlington city residents will see an issue on the ballot this Town Meeting day about school improvements.
Published: Feb. 22, 2023 at 6:15 AM EST
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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - South Burlington residents will see a $14.5 million school bond measure on the ballot this Town Meeting Day. Six million dollars of the proposed bond would be spent on installing eight, zero-energy modular units, or ZEMs, to increase classroom space for a growing number of students.

The external classrooms would be added to the Rick Marcotte and Orchard Elementary Schools. Unlike many Vermont school districts, South Burlington is adding students every year and the district said they need more room.

For decades, the city of South Burlington has added about 145 homes a year.

“This past year was our highest number of new homes that got permits for construction in South Burlington history. We’re projecting the next couple of years are going to continue to be very high,” said Paul Conner, the city’s director of planning and zoning.

He says 436 permits for new homes were issued in 2022 alone. The city is seeing an uptick in one- or two-bed apartments and is expecting more families.

“It’s migration that is creating the population change,” said Conner.

It comes as school officials say space in school buildings is decreasing.

“We’re in a reactive place right now,” said South Burlington School District Superintendent Violet Nichols.

By 2026, the district predicts there will be a total of 53 more students between Rick Marcotte and Orchard Elementary Schools, both of which are already over-enrolled.

“Larger cohorts who will matriculate through our system will then need middle and high school space solutions. But for now, part of this bond’s critical component is the Zero Energy Modulars,” Nichols said.

If approved, each school would get four connecting external classrooms. Each unit would have two classrooms and a group room. It’s estimated that 91% of the $6 million cost would eventually be paid for by impact fees from new housing development.

“Any new developments will be subject to impact fees collected by the city beginning July 1 at a 50% rate. January 1, 2024, is when the impact fees will be at 100%,” said Nichols.

She says these fees are specific to the ZEMs. If the bond fails, the fees are turned off. Projects already planned and underway will not have fees.

The ZEMs would be in place for five years at the elementary level. After they’re paid, they can be used at the middle or high school. They’d be maintained the same as any other infrastructure.

The school district is also thinking about what’s next. There’s a fifth-grade transition committee examining whether they should move to the middle school.

“Certainly, years down the road, we want to be in a planful place rather than the reactive place we’re in now, where we are over-enrolled and so we’re going to bond for them,” said Nichols.

South Burlington city leaders said leading up to the decision, they talked about how the fees could affect the housing market and noted no public concerns about it.

Evan Langfeldt, a developer with the O’Brien Brothers, said while he doesn’t anticipate impact fees to deter future development, he does have concerns about the cost trickling down to homebuyers, many of whom don’t yet live there yet.

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