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January 20, 2011

After $1.5 Million and Years of Citizen Advocacy, Edmunds Middle School Unveils New Elevator

It took years of citizen advocacy and about $1.5 million, but Edmunds Middle School is now accessible to people with mobility issues. 

Or at least mostly accessible. While a newly installed lift will make it possible for students in wheelchairs to attend the school, there's still work to be done, noted Burlington School District Superintendent Jeanne Collins in remarks at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday afternoon. The event was attended by dozens of Burlington parents, students, disability advocates, politicians and school administrators. 

"All I ask is we don't stop here," she said. "We have a whole campus — let's keep going."

That's something that Michael Wood-Lewis, a long-time advocate for making the Burlington schools more accessible, would also like to see. In an interview before the event, Wood-Lewis, the co-founder of neighborhood email newsletter service Front Porch Forum, noted that Edmunds Elementary isn't yet fully accessible to those with mobility issues, and problems remain with accessing the middle school's gym. 

"We are very hopeful that these next stages won't be forgotten or put on a back shelf," he said. "Now people who were formerly segregated out of Edmunds will start coming, and there will be increasing pressure to finish the job," he predicted. 

Wood-Lewis ferried his oldest son, Ben, who uses a wheelchair, and some of his son's school friends into the elevator for its inaugural ride during the ceremony. It's a ride that his son will take many more times during the next school year, since he'll be entering Edmunds Middle School in the fall. Seeing the elevator installed was a relief, Wood-Lewis said, because without it, his son wouldn't have been able to attend Edmunds. As detailed in this 2009 Seven Days article about Edmunds Middle School's accessibility problems, students with disabilities from the Edmunds school area were previously sent to Hunt Middle School, torn from their friends during a notoriously difficult period for kids. 

Fred Lane, the chair of the Burlington School Board, said in an interview at the ceremony that the elevator project came in on budget. But will Burlington voters support more spending on continuing to improve the accessibility of the city's schools? "Absolutely," he said. 

As detailed in a Burlington Free-Press article earlier this month, the elevator is just one of several million-dollar improvements to Burlington's schools, although some of the other projects have run over budget. Lane notes that the elevator project didn't take any funds away from improvement projects at three other schools, which are being paid for by a $9.7 million bond passed by city voters. The elevator's funding came from other sources, such as economic stimulus funds. Lane notes that the other school projects are focused on renovation and improved energy efficiency, rather than accessibility. 

The ceremony unveiling this project was emotional, with speakers and audience members tearing up. Caroline Saba, the daughter of city councilor Karen Paul and a classmate of Ben Wood-Lewis, told the crowd that the elevator wasn't just about one person, but instead that it represented "our community standing up and saying what is right." Noting that many students have been learning this month about Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision, she added, "I think Dr. King would be proud of Burlington today."

Ed. note: Aimee Picchi is a contributing writer whose work occasionally appears in Seven Days.


Only in Burlington can spending 1.5 Million dollars on an elevator be considered a success. When commercial elevators cost 75,000 - $150,000 plus installation one has to wonder if Collins is using some of Kiss and Leopold's strategies to steal taxpayer money?

Fred Lane sat in front of the CC and lobbied them to put a $200+ million bond in front of voters after Leopold had just explained to him that it would be literally impossible for the City to borrow that much. Not difficult, IMPOSSIBLE. And he kept right on asking for it. 'nuf said.


Elevators are enormously expensive and maintenance costs are also huge. It's in part why big boxes are...big boxes, they design a floor plan that puts everything on one level, so that an elevator is not needed. over the lifetime of some structure the savings can be in the millions.

For an exisitng older structure such as Edmunds, the costs are much higher. You have to go into a century old structure and drill a jack hole into bedrock, build an elevator shaft that meets modern building, fire and access codes and do it without shutting down the school. Some school districts would walk away from the school and put up a new building elsewhere, but Burlington wants to keep it's neighborhood schools. I agree that it's a high price to pay, but it is not evidence of malfeasance or stupidity.

A couple of quick responses, simply for the sake of accuracy. 1) Edmunds was built well before elevators were standard equipment, and long before we began to take issues of accessibility seriously. The bulk of the cost came from work necessary to make it physically possible to install the elevator, and from the improvements needed in the school's old electrical system (which will have far-reaching benefits for the school going forward).

2) While the total cost of the District's Master Plan was $226 million, the Board (and I) did not keep lobbying for a bond in that amount after consulting with the City administration. We had serious conversations with the City about what was affordable, and came up with a prioritized list that was included in the $9.7 million bond passed a couple of years ago. To be clear, the issues identified in the Master Plan are not going away, and they will need to be addressed in the years to come.

So we can expect several houses to be bought and demolished and a parking garage erected next to the elementary school? Sorry Fred, fat chance you are ever going to get voter approval for that one.

As for the elevator, so $1.4 Million or so was the cost of running some new electrical and to make some structural modifications? Who did the work, was it put out to competitive bid? You know, for accuracy's sake...

Tim you are right, it's not evidence of malfeasance or stupidity, well at least not malfeasance. However, neither is $17 Mil missing from the cash pool or cable installations that cost 4-6X what is considered normal. But, it may make some people wonder.

Telecom is another animal. I have nothing good to say about that business.

Fred, I watched that meeting on TV. You originally asked for $226m. The request was modified to $92m, which was inextricably linked to an eventual bonding of $226m ("phased"). Leopold stated during the 9/15/08 CC meeting that the City had an "unutilized capacity of about 20 million dollars" FOR THE WHOLE CITY. He explained that even attempting to borrow that money, coupled with an authorization to borrow more, could result in a downgrade for the City's bond rating. He made it clear that a voter authorization for the level of money you were asking for could well result in such a downgrade. His explanation was very clear and simple. Rather than withdraw the proposal, you continued to tout its benefits.

I would also point out that you collectively had put the original bond request in ONE DAY after receiving the consultant's report, without asking the City what its actual borrowing capacity was. Press conferences and meetings were held with parents that got them all excited about the great improvements that this windfall was going to bring. Parents were asked to lobby their neighbors to ask the CC to bring the $92m bond to a vote. All before anyone asked a simple question that would have revealed that anything in the ballpark of the bond amount was impossible.

Finally, post the breakdown of the $1.5m expenditure, even a rough one. I find it hard to believe that preconstruction necessitated a 10-20x increase in the cost over new construction.

This exchange highlights how Telecom has seeped into other areas of policy. If there is an upside to this fiasco it's that the public will be demanding more accountability from government for the foreseeable future.

It only seeped into this exchange in response to your suggestion that just because this elevator cost 10-20X more then average that wasn't evidence of wrong doing. With BT there is no direct evidence either...

But I do agree Tim, BTC certainly has made the public more aware that public officials may not actually be serving them. That includes school boards as well.

I am not endorsing $1.5 million for one elevator as a good use of tax dollars, I am saying that given the particulars of the project it certainly was going to be horrendously expensive. It is also clear from past votes that the people of Burlington support retrofitting old buildings like Edmunds rather than consolidating facilities.

Dear 7D... please curb your trolls... they make such a mess of beautiful things.

The Edmunds achievement is a success story all around. Congratulations to School board, admin and all the children, teachers, parents, custodians, and community members who can now use this cornerstone of Burlington... a building many have been barred from for a century.

And, BTW, $500k for a large five-stop elevator in a 100-year-old building is a good price (ask someone who knows). The other $1M was for past-due electrical and fire safety upgrades to all four buildings in the Edmunds complex. Also, initial estimates for the elevator were 10x higher... so it proved much cheaper than originally feared.

This is a pretty good debate, and "curbing" (i.e. censoring) kind of defeats the purpose of the blog, wouldn't you agree?

So it was a $1.5m elevator project. Then it was an elevator and electrical upgrade project. Now it was an elevator, revamp the electrical system for the whole "complex" and make other unspecified "fire safety upgrades" project.

Again - someone post a breakdown of the expenditures. All the work that was done sounds great, and I know this wasn't property tax-derived, but it was federal tax money provided to all the citizens of Burlington, who have a right to know how it was spent. My point in bringing up the bond fiasco of 2008 was that we can't just trust that the right thing is being done IMO.

True Vermonter, by curb the trolls does that mean the people who don't share your opinion? That's what it seems like....

So the original estimate was 10X higher? Someone gave the school board a 15 Million dollar estimate and they said ok? I'm not sure what's more disturbing at this point, the idea that with a 9.7 Million bond to work with an estimate of 15 Mil was submitted and OK'd or that 1.5 Million was actually spent on an elevator, and subsequently wiring upgrades. I'm with Tim, I think a break down needs to be looked at carefully. Maybe it's all there... should be easy enough to prove.

Its nice to have an elevator unfortunately it does not level the playing field for kids in chairs. If Burlington were progressive we would have teachers trained at Hunt in dealing with kids in chairs concentating the precious resources and providing world class special ed in one school. Perhaps if we had spent money on a pool where the barriers could be truly leveled we would have a greater benefit for children to learn some self sufficiency.

Good job on the elevator now its time to make more access in the bathrooms, classrooms etc making suire there are enough people to carry the kids down the stairs during fire drills and bomb drills etc...

No response from Fred? Guess there were no more "inaccuracies" to "correct," and once again we don't get even a high-level breakdown of how the money was spent. Taxpayers beware.

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