Organize to Win: Old North End Community Fights to Save Neighborhood Elementary Schools
By James Haslam, Director of Vermont Workers’ Center – Jobs With Justice

When unions are at their best, workers are united – organizing with their fellow co-workers and crafting a campaign that brings them together to solve problems and win victories for everyone else who works for a living. It’s this basic model of creating positive change through unity, that workers have successfully used to improve rights and conditions they have at work and in their communities. 

This fall, members of the Vermont Workers’ Center and residents of the Old North End put together a campaign to fight the closing of their neighborhood elementary schools along this same model.

Runaway healthcare costs coupled with decreasing federal funding for education created a situation where the Burlington School System began looking at ways they could balance the budget. Rumors began to fly that the School Board was once again looking to close one or both of the neighborhood schools in the Old North End – a working-class community which experiences the highest level of poverty in Vermont’s largest city. The two neighborhood elementary schools are also the most racially diverse in the entire state. It’s not a coincidence that these schools are constantly threatened with cuts and closures whenever there’s a budget shortfall. In the words of Barnes parent Siobhan Donegan, “Do not balance the budget on the backs of our kids – or any Burlington children!”

Workers’ Center members living in the Old North End began discussing what a devastating impact losing either of the neighborhood schools would have on their community. We needed to tell the School Board to take our elementary schools off the chopping block – for good. During extensive door-to-door canvassing before Labor Day Weekend, we learned that this sentiment was virtually unanimous among other residents.  

Members of the Burlington School Board and Administration talked about their desire to “remove the educational barriers” to low-income students “trapped” in “homogenous” schools. They were considering moving the Old North End students to schools in wealthier neighborhoods where, they said, the students would do better because they’d have model peers from wealthier families. Old North End parents and community members immediately questioned how shipping their kids on city buses outside the neighborhood would help their kids, especially with serious transportation challenges and the inevitable decrease in parents’ ability to participate in their children’s education.

Community organizing meetings began in order to put a campaign together to stop the School Board from closing the schools. Workers’ Center members, parents, and neighbors formed a “Community Schools Coalition” and began collecting signatures on a petition calling on the School Board to keep the two neighborhood schools open. Members also developed allies in other parts of the city to put pressure on their elected board members. Dozens of community members were mobilized to pack Neighborhood Planning Assembly meetings where School Board members were presenting their plan. At the time, the Board members assured the crowd that there were no proposals to close either of the Old North End schools. 

Community members kept on organizing. At a packed School Board meeting in early November, Barnes parent and Workers’ Center member, Jonathan Kissam, delivered over 500 petition signatures while supporters surrounded the School Board with signs saying “Keep Our Neighborhood Schools Open.”

Despite the organizing, the School Administration presented their proposal calling for the closing of Barnes as the centerpiece of cuts to the budget that very night. Two days later, over 40 parents and community members met at an emergency organizing meeting at the Barnes School. In the course of the next three weeks they canvassed neighborhoods all over the city, attended any community event they could, and distributed flyers to contact the School Board which generated dozens of calls and emails to stop the proposal.  

A media splash was made during a rally at Barnes with over 60 parents, kids, and community members, which later generated dozens of letters to the editor. As a result of this work, the Burlington Free Press came out strongly in support of keeping the neighborhood schools open. The School Board responded by rescheduling a budget meeting to be a community forum at Barnes, where a packed gym of parents and supporters gave powerful testimony to keep the school open.

At the next School Board meeting, residents of the Old North End had their first step towards victory when the School Board voted not to close Barnes in this year’s budget, and adopted the campaign’s proposal to create a community task force to explore all options about how to best meet the educational needs of students with the stress on the city’s budget.

This major victory was not without a hitch. The new budget proposal included cutting the Barnes principle, social worker, librarian, and nurse. The parents knew these positions were vital to the success of their children and school, and that these cuts would start the slow death of Barnes. So the organizing continued. More calls were generated and another round of signatures were collected on an open letter calling for the positions to be restored. On January 10th, the letter and signatures were placed as an ad in the Burlington Free Press. That night, the School Board voted to restore almost all of the cut positions. Step by step, the coalition of parents and community members had won every demand. 

In the course of a few months, parents and neighbors joined together to mobilize hundreds more community members and supports who participated in ways both large and small in the fight to keep their neighborhood schools open. Even when things looked bleak and people said that the Administration was just going to shove this down their throats, they kept going. Now they are monitoring and steering the work of the task force and have a voice in the decision.

On January 16th, the Burlington City Council placed an item on the town meeting ballot to support maintaining all six neighborhood schools. Coalition members are continuing to organize for a “Yes” vote on the budget and to ensure that the task force comes up with effective and equitable plans to make our schools the best for all children in Burlington. By organizing a strong voice to counter the easy way out – balancing the budget on children from working class neighborhoods – together we have won an important victory.

To find out the next steps in the Neighborhood schools organizing, go to or call Heather Riemer at (802) 343-1468. 

The Vermont Workers’ Center is an organization of working Vermont families committed to fighting for justice and respect in our communities and workplaces. To learn more and find out how to get involved go to