April 23, 2014

School district fails to meet deadline

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Permit for temporary classrooms expires Sept. 27

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Williston School District has missed the deadline for submitting paperwork needed to continue using temporary classrooms that house dozens of students at Allen Brook School.

D.K. Johnston, zoning administrator for the town, was informed Monday morning that a new site plan application for the structures would not be completed until Sept. 12. That is nearly two weeks later than when the information was needed to ensure the Development Review Board could consider the matter before the existing permit expires on Sept. 27. A hearing on the application is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 11.

The situation raises questions about what the town will do once the permit expires or if no new permit is approved.

Contacted on Monday afternoon, Johnston said he was checking to see if local ordinances and state statutes addressed the issue. Asked if the district will be ordered to vacate the classrooms after the permit expires, he replied, “I think that is very unlikely.”

Still, the permit issue has school officials concerned, though they are hopeful it will be resolved without disrupting classes.

“We are worried about it, about what would happen if the DRB doesn’t approve it and we had to take them down immediately,” said Williston School Board Chairwoman Marty Sundby. She said the board has not made contingency plans should the school district be ordered to move students out of the classrooms.

“If we got word that they were not going to approve the permit, we would have a hastily called meeting,” Sundby said.

Bob Mason, chief operations manager for the Chittenden South Supervisory Union, which helps administer Williston and other area school districts, said the contractor working on the new site plan had previously promised it would make the deadline. But Mason has since learned that the engineer assigned to the project was double-booked and could not finish the work until this month.

Mason also said he was hopeful the situation would not disrupt classes.

“This is an issue of paperwork and process between adults,” Mason said. “I see no reason to involve the students.”

Kevin McDermott, chairman of the Development Review Board, said the board is in charge of reviewing projects, not enforcement, so he could not say what the town would do about the expired permit.

The board had required the new plans because the three-year permit was set to expire and because there were deviations from the original plans. Johnston said the changes include the addition of storage buildings and parking, altered lighting and different traffic flow around the structures.

McDermott said the unapproved changes raise general safety issues since the board did not review them. He did not cite anything specific that would endanger students or school staff.

Johnston noted the soon-to-expire permit presents a novel situation for the town. Enforcement actions generally fall into two categories: projects that violate the zoning ordinance and those that don’t get a permit before construction begins. The temporary classrooms don’t fit either scenario.

The temporary classrooms, which are doublewide trailers adapted for school use, house between 72 and 80 students in four rooms. They were installed in 2002 to ease crowding amid rising enrollment in the district’s two schools.

At the time, the Williston School Board said they were a stopgap measure until a permanent addition to Allen Brook School was constructed and vowed to remove them after three years. The three-year expiration date on the permit was imposed at the district’s request.

The long lead time for the permit application was in part needed because of a change in state law effective Sept. 1. The law now requires all site plan hearings to be warned. That means towns must print a newspaper legal notice two weeks in advance of a hearing.

Factoring in extra time for newspaper deadlines made it impossible to legally warn the meeting unless the district’s site plan application was filed before the end of August, Johnston said.

If the board refuses to issue a new permit or the town takes issue with the expired permit, the district would have limited options. Both Allen Brook School and Williston Central School are at or near capacity.

Three years ago, the district was forced to teach students in Allen Brook’s gymnasium when the temporary classrooms were not ready by the start of the school year.

In the years leading up to the classroom’s installation, school enrollment in Williston had increased steadily, with an average annual addition of 37 students.

But since the classrooms were added in 2002, enrollment has leveled off. Enrollment has dropped by a handful of students in each of the previous two school years. And based on preliminary figures, it appears that enrollment is down again this school year.

The murky enrollment picture led the Williston School Board to delay plans to expand Allen Brook with a permanent addition and instead try to renew the temporary classrooms’ permit for another three years.

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