Friday, May 8, 2009

Free Press covers Edmunds accessibility

More media coverage about Edmunds accessibility. Molly Walsh covered the story for the Burlington Free Press today (below).

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Edmunds explores accessibility
By Molly Walsh, Burlington Free Press
May 8, 2009

The first phase of a proposal to make the four-story Edmunds Middle School handicap accessible would cost about $1.6 million, according to a new Burlington School District study.

That price tag would cover the cost of one elevator and a major upgrade to the building’s electrical and fire safety systems.

The estimate is part of a feasibility study completed this week for the Burlington School Board in response to calls from the public to make the historic Edmunds school complex on Main Street fully accessible.

The report by local architect Colin Lindberg was presented to a School Board subcommittee Tuesday night. Last week, about 60 people, including some who are members of new group called ACCESS Burlington, attended a meeting to demand improvements.

The School Board has not approved the access plan or secured funding to modify the two circa 1900 schools full of stairs and spaces that are off limits to people in wheelchairs. Many board members have said they want to find a solution.

Federal stimulus money is not available to help fund the project, said Jeanne Collins, Burlington schools superintendent. The stimulus money the district is receiving through the federal Title I program cannot be used on buildings, and the district’s request for money from the state’s pot of stimulus money was denied. Efforts to obtain grant money have also failed.

Still, those who are calling for full access are optimistic. After years of inertia, they see momentum for change.

“My family, for one, is thrilled with the progress that seems to be under way right now,” said Michael Wood-Lewis, a Burlington father of four and co-founder of the Front Porch Forum. “We’re not there yet. Nothing’s been built. No money has been secured, but there seems to be an acknowledgement that as a community we simply have to fix this problem, and I believe we can.”

His son Ben, a third-grader at Champlain Elementary School in the South End, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Under current district practice, Ben will not be able to attend his neighborhood middle school, Edmunds, when he reaches sixth grade. When his classmates go off to Edmunds, Ben will go to Hunt Middle School in the New North End because the one-story building is accessible to students in wheelchairs.

It’s unfair to segregate students in this way, Wood-Lewis argues, and wrong for the broader community to be shut out of the two buildings for plays, parent-teacher conferences and other events. At public meetings on the issue, residents have spoken about the difficulty teachers and students face when they become injured and need to use crutches, or develop other health problems that make it difficult to go up and down many flights of stairs.

Proponents of better access say the situation violates the spirit and letter of federal laws requiring handicap access. School district officials maintain that by providing access to an “equivalent program” in another district school, Burlington is in compliance with the law.

The estimate to make both Edmunds buildings fully accessible is $10 million to $15 million, Collins said. That would include four elevators and extensive remodeling.

Whether Burlington is willing to spend that much is unclear. City voters have been in a generous mood in the last two years and approved budget increases totaling 20 percent — increases that are well above the state average. This year voters also approved a $9.7 million bond and gave the School Board permission to increase its annual bonding capacity from $750,000 to $2 million.

Some residents have said the increases are too much, especially in a sour economy. Last fall the School Board iced plans for a school improvement mega-bond request that started at $226 million and was chopped to $92 million after many residents and city officials complained that even the smaller amount was unaffordable.

The Edmunds elevator project is competing with many other projects for funding in the district’s real estate portfolio of nine buildings totaling 602,600 square-feet. “There’s going to be some tough decisions to make,” Collins said.

Wood-Lewis stressed that only a portion of the $1.6 million phase I price tag is for an elevator — the rest is for infrastructure upgrades. “This is work that has to be done anyway,” he said. “I hope it’s made clear to people that it’s not a $1.5 million elevator.”

He believes city residents and school officials can make it happen. “I have every confidence that we’ll be able to figure this out and get it paid for.”

Contact Molly Walsh at 660-1874 or

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