July 28, 2014

School trailers: 4 more years

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Bus loading area redesigned

The temporary buildings at Allen Brook School will be around for at least another four years.

After nine months of discussion, the Development Review Board on Tuesday night approved a four-year permit for the double-wide trailers at Allen Brook School, with the stipulation that school officials present a long-term plan for the site to the DRB two years from now.

A re-design of a potentially dangerous bus loading area also is in the works in response to concerns expressed by the DRB. An unconventional bus driveway required that some kids had to walk in between buses to load them. A state official last fall said that such a system was “ill advised” and “not a safe practice.” The school ended that practice in November.

The new bus loading area, to be constructed this summer, will allow all students to load directly from a curbed sidewalk. The construction of a new sidewalk and paving of the bus loop area, an estimated $50,000, was approved by the School Board last week.

Since the end of September, the school’s temporary buildings have been in violation of a town zoning ordinance. Prior to their construction in 2002, the Development Review Board granted the temporary buildings a permit on condition they be removed after three years and the site returned to its original state.

“We passed temporary buildings three years ago,” Kevin McDermott, DRB chairman, said by phone after the meeting. “They were approved as temporary. We don’t want to pass temporary buildings ad infinitum; then they are no longer temporary. What we’re looking at it is, what is your real plan?”

The Williston School Board originally assured the public the double-wide trailers would be in place only three years while the board assessed enrollment trends and more permanent options. The new four-year permit – which does not take effect until after the DRB minutes are approved at its next meeting March 14 – means the trailers will be in place for a total of at least seven and a half years.

The temporary buildings have generated controversy from the beginning. Parents expressed concern over studies that showed materials in newly built trailers emitted toxic vapors. Exhaust fumes from nearby school buses were also a worry. Air quality testing later showed no cause for concern, according to Bob Mason, chief operations officer for Chittenden South Supervisory Union. CSSU helps administer schools in Williston and other area towns.

Growing student enrollment in Williston led Allen Brook School to install the temporary buildings, which accommodate about 80 students, for more classroom space until the School Board could assess options for permanent expansion.

Soon after construction of the temporary classrooms, however, student enrollment leveled off. After years of adding an average of 36 students to its roster, the district saw a slight drop in enrollment over the last two years. Earlier this year, enrollment showed a drop of about 36 students. School officials said it wasn’t prudent to move forward with earlier plans to permanently expand the size of the school given that reversal of enrollment trends.

Mason said he is comfortable with the condition that the School Board returns in two years with a long-term plan. The board should regularly share its long-term plans with the town and with town committees, he said. “I think that’s a reasonable request by the town.”

The long-term plan required by the DRB in 2008 is just one of 18 conditions imposed with the permit approval. Other conditions include new lighting outside the school and motion-sensor operated lights after hours. Parking will be eliminated and grass planted in an unpermitted gravel parking area meant for deliveries. The DRB had expressed concerns that a number of students run through the area before and after school hours.

In June of last year, school officials requested a three-year extension of the temporary building permit, which the DRB denied. The permitting process exists in part for public safety, board Chairman Kevin McDermott had indicated, so a new application was necessary.

“I’ve heard it from the public: ‘you’re being mean to the kids,’” McDermott said in an interview, referring to the protracted discussions. “Almost everything we worried about is the safety of the kids.”

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