Are Poor Families and Children Being Priced Out of Burlington?

The data below suggests that Burlington is becoming a city for the wealthy, as working class families are being priced out of Burlington and forced to move further and further away from jobs and social services. What does this mean for Burlington, for our schools, for our values of inclusion?

Burlington’s childhood poverty rate has been dropping from a post-recession high of 51%. While it may seem obvious to give credit to a rebounding economy and maybe even local policies, the truth seems to be a bit less rosy. Since 2004 the percentage of children receiving free and reduced lunches has fallen from 42% to 40%, but when compared to the high of 51%, the data looks promising. Yet when we look at data from surrounding districts, the data suggests that poverty is increasing in nearly every other school district but Burlington. A reason for this may very well be that families are being priced out of Burlington due to gentrification, legal mass-evictions, and anemic affordable housing growth under the current administration.

While Winooski’s poverty rates returned to 2003 levels after a tumultuous 15 years, four districts doubled their poverty rate, while two others increased 5%-6%. Milton doubled from 16% to 36%, Colchester doubled from 13% to 27%, Williston doubled from 8% to 16%, Essex doubled from 11% to 22%, while Georgia has increased from 16% to 21% and South Burlington 11% to 17%.

The truth seems to be that lower poverty rates are a reflection of low income families being priced out of Burlington, and less with Burlington making meaningful policy decisions to help low income residents. With stagnant wages, a city council and mayor that won’t raise the minimum wage or strengthen our livable wage ordinance, growing housing costs and a widening income inequality gap, it makes sense that working class families continue to struggle. More seem to be struggling outside Burlington. With Bissonette mass-evicting folks out of their 300+ units of housing, it’s no wonder that folks are moving further and further away from social services and jobs.

All data can be found here.

Burlington Needs to Hold Slumlords like Bove Accountable

The city council recently did business with local slumlord Rick Bove in overwhelming support, voting 9-3. It seems that the 70 housing codes the Bove family amassed over the past few years, did not factor into the minds of our elected leaders. The priority to build up our downtown core seems more important to our city than ensuring that working class residents can live with dignity. As our city continues to grow, now is the time to create more protections for our most vulnerable neighbors, to ensure that slumlords like Rick Bove are held responsible for their actions.

A little background is needed to understand why I would make such a bold claim against a renowned Burlington family. Over the past 4 years the Boves have amassed over 70 housing code violations on their 16 properties, not far behind notorious slumlord Soon Kwon, with one property falling into such disrepair it was condemned by the city and tenants were forced to move. According to Seven Days, in 2013 the city even held their liquor license hostage so that the Boves would pay and fix over 40 housing code violations.

Rick Bove’s response to Seven Days? “You can write whatever you like, it doesn’t matter to me.” Clearly, it also doesn’t matter to him what terrible, heartbreaking conditions his tenants live in.

At my NPA, I wanted to understand why slumlords like the Boves are given countless chances to change without any serious repercussions or consequences. While it was heartening to hear Councilor Roof admit that the Boves have been slumlords for decades, it was discomforting to know that he and other elected officials have done little (to little effect) to curb these criminal behaviors. Several councilors even stated that the ends, more housing in the city, justified the means, slumlords being encouraged to develop and own more property in Burlington.

One would think our elected officials should be doing everything in their power to discourage criminal behavior, and recognize that positive ends rarely justify destructive means.

Why are landlords allowed to have outstanding fines for so long? Why hasn’t the city council enacted and funded more vigorous protections and enforcement? What are they now going to do to start addressing a long-ignored problem?

There is some hope coming from our Code Enforcement Director, Bill Ward. He has been working with a city attorney to find ways to revoke landlords’ rental licenses when they act like slumlords and amass many fines.

While this is a really great start, now more than ever we need to ask our elected leaders to ensure all residents have stable, safe housing, and that landlords who racks up fines will be held responsible – particularly by the city taking away their rental license, and refusing to do business with them until they have made a long-term effort to change their past behavior.

The YMCA’s Early Education Expansion Will Help Itself, Hurt Others

As someone who works directly with vulnerable populations, it’s often hard to feel optimistic in the current national and local political environment. It’s particularly difficult to see policy decisions and actions taking place in our city that inadvertently end up negatively impacting the vulnerable populations they are meant to help. The YMCA’s planned early education expansion is a good example of this, where they will add 100 more classroom spaces, 50% for families on childcare subsidy. On the surface this looks like a clearly positive addition to the city and especially for children living in poverty, but without any coordination from the larger early education community, this decision will likely do more damage than good.

Last week I wrote about how Burlington’s early education system is strained to the point of full-blown crisis. One critical part of this crisis is that preschools, in programs throughout the spectrum, have significant trouble finding and retaining highly educated teachers who can work with traumatized populations. A friend of mine at a different highly rated center said it took them an entire year to fill a single teaching spot. It turns out that when the cost of living is high and early educators make under $15 an hour, graduates choose to move elsewhere. That’s not even considering the nearly $30,000 in average debt students have when they graduate UVM, with debt repayments equaling 6 weeks of pay for 10+ consecutive years.

My school offers a good example, and I hope this information won’t get me into trouble, but I do believe it’s important to be honest and open about how our school struggles. My school is one of the best in the city if not the state (I say this to brag about the amazing work of my coworkers and directors, because if I was as good as them I’d be more focused on curriculum, not on political blogging!), and we recently put out an ad to hire substitute teachers on a per diem basis. After 3 months, only one person sent in an application. I think it’s pretty clear that the situation is dire.

Now, in a system where quality teachers are already scarce, the YMCA is looking to add 50 infant/toddler spots and 50 preschool spots. If we assume that 2 FT and 1 PT teachers will be hired for every classroom, which is fairly common, and each infant/toddler classroom has 8 children while each preschool classroom has 16 children, the Y will need to hire conservatively 27 teachers, most of whom will need 4-year college degrees and a teaching license. So, while it is nearly impossible to find lower-qualified substitutes, the Y will need another 27 highly trained educators. Add the fact that last year at the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission, after reading this letter that my staff and I wrote discussing our successes and challenges, newly hired YMCA CEO Kyle Dodson commented that the letter was overly dramatic. I have a lot of doubt that these new positions will pay a fair, livable wage. I feel sorry for the unlucky worker who has to hire for the expansion.

Just to reiterate: The YMCA will expand way too quickly in an environment when every center is struggling. At best, schools like mine, that already cannot compete with the Y in terms of fundraising and advertising, will need to raise salaries just to keep staff and not have to compete in an even tighter labor market. This means that tuition will rise for families, especially those in the middle of the income ladder. More spots for those with wealth and those without, but the middle and lower middle class will be squeezed even worse. On top of that, without highly trained staff who know how to work with children with trauma, the Y will likely see incredibly high rates of teacher and student turnover, and all quality in all centers will start to suffer. Worst case scenario, the Y pushes centers like mine out of business, leaving a handful of larger early childhood ‘factories’, like Heartworks, to choose from.

It’s a lose-lose, and I think any gains for the few families who get the new spots will be eaten up by system destabilization and potential closure of other centers. Is the risk of destabilizing the system worth it? Or should the city take its time, actually work with early childhood educators, and make sure the centers that are currently open can improve on quality and teacher retention until we as a community figure out a sustainable plan?

Burlington’s Early Childhood Education is in Crisis

As a preschool teacher, a graduate of the Snelling Center’s Early Childhood Leadership Institute and as a 2017 city council candidate who campaigned for universal publicly funded early childhood education, it is fair to say I’m pretty passionate about early childhood education, especially at the public policy level. Last year my school even wrote a letter to the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education to discuss how much it costs to run a high quality top-rated program, how hard it is to run that program and how everyone in the system suffers due to a severe lack of funding.

While our own Mayor Weinberger promotes his market-based funding scheme for increasing early childhood education in the city, (twice now remaining relatively silent on the matter in non-election years), now is the time to discuss the many, many challenges Burlington’s early education community is facing, and how these challenges are bringing many centers onto the verge of a full blown crisis of care. Since last May, I have reached out to Weinberger’s office multiple times, but my request to meet with him about these issues have been repeatedly ignored. So I’m hoping that if I put my concerns out into the world, maybe just maybe this will make its way to our mayor and he will choose to listen.

Here are the biggest issues.

1) I take no joy in writing this, as I know firsthand the pressures of keeping a sometimes chaotic room full of children safe. That being said, there are real problems right now with several of the ‘high quality’ programs already operating in Burlington, where two centers have lost a STAR, one because children were left unattended and another because no one knew a child had wandered several blocks away from the school. Our STARS rating system does not take into account the work and cost needed to adequately support families with trauma, living through drug addiction, poverty, etc. A program can have 5-STARS but still be unprepared to work with the 70% of young Burlington children who come from homes making below 200% of the federal poverty level. Most, if not all, highly rated programs struggle acutely with these challenges.

2) Centers have real trouble retaining teachers, especially high quality teachers, and some centers have yearly turnover rates as high as 50%. That’s essentially every teacher leaving ever 2 years. Not only do centers struggle to build consistent teaching teams and a clear set of values and expectations, but children who see staff high turnover suffer academically. For children who already come from families where adults are constantly coming into and out of their lives, this can be incredibly stressful and triggering.

3) The typical early childhood educator works two jobs, because most of the best private early childhood educators in the city are paid less than $16 an hour, or $33,000 a year, while the city’s 2018 livable wage with health benefits is only a few thousand dollars less, at $29,619 a year, while neither come close to covering Burlington’s high costs of living. Teachers end up coming to school tired and short-tempered, either because they are burnt out from being tired/sick from overworking, stressed financially, or both. Public schools are incredibly attractive alternatives: while teachers in public schools put in more hours of work during the week, they are compensated, with the help of strong unions, upwards of 50%-70% more than private preschool teachers and early educators, to say nothing of the myriad vacations, health benefits, CTO time, tax breaks, loan forgiveness programs, and secondary education/professional development benefits. When even the Bagel Market on Shelburne Road offers a starting salary of $15 an hour, it’s hard to feel like your community values your work.

4) Most centers also have trouble retaining substitute teachers for when staff are sick, which is why one highly rated center last year had to close their doors for several days at a time due to lack of staff. Imagine what this does to overburdened staff, who may not use sick time even when they should so as to not burden their center. It happens a lot more than you think.

5) Schools often lack the necessary professional development/trainings to prepare teachers to work with children with high levels of stress and trauma due to generational poverty, drug addiction, learning delays, and English Language Learners. My school regularly enrolls ‘problem children’ from other highly rated centers in the area. These centers, which as our mayor will tell you, are a business that should make money, do not have the capacity to deal with these children (often class size-ratios, 8:1 children to teachers, are too high to effectively manage, never mind teach, but that’s the only way to try to break even as a business!) and often parents say they and their children feel much more respected and valued over their previous center.

6) School are ill-funded.  If not for the United Way, my own center would be tens of thousands of dollars in the red every year, just to cover operating expenses. Meanwhile, our executive director, with a masters’ degree and over two decades of experience, makes $45,000 a year. Neither staff nor lower-middle class and working class families win in this system.

7) To reiterate, early education will always be, and should be, a money losing business! It’s a terrible business to get in to because our community has recognized that education from K-12 is not a money-making business but rather a public good. I wish Mayor Weinberger agreed.

8) No centers really want to expand. It’s hard enough to make ends meet, keep children safe, hire competent staff, all the while according to the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission,  a high-quailty toddler/infant slot costs over $35,000 a year. In most centers, the preschool classrooms ends up subsidizing infant and toddler classrooms, all of which are subsidized by charity, small grants, families (who can’t afford it), and most importantly ridiculously low paid teachers and staff.
Adding money to the system right now will be like building a new bedroom on a burning house. Let’s correct the problems current centers face BEFORE we add more capacity.