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Awaiting A Decision On Resettlement, Both Sides Of The Rutland Debate Prepare For Refugees

Rutland residents are still waiting to hear if their city will become Vermont’s newest refugee resettlement community. An announcement from the State Department is expected any day.

Meanwhile, both sides of the controversial issue have been hard at work.

At the Rutland Methodist Church, Barbara Richter and Marsha Cassel unlock a storage room filled with household goods.

Richter points out pots and pans and full sets of dishes.

There are floor to ceiling shelves filled with glassware and coffee mugs, bed linens and bath towels.

Richter opens a large garbage bag on the floor that’s filled with outerwear. “In here, we have all these winter coats and they’re organized by size,” she says smiling.

“And in another location we have bigger things,” explains Cassel. “We have furniture that came in, we have dressers, tables and chairs, bed frames and lamps.”

Richter and Cassel are members of Rutland Welcomes, a grassroots group that formed to help the city welcome new refugees from Syria.

The group received so many items during its first donation drive last month, they canceled a second set for October.

“I’m really pleased where we’re at," says Richter, looking at the donated items. “Even though it’s not a done deal yet, I think that this drive sort of represented how much support there actually is within the community and how much folks actually want this to happen.”

"Even though it's not a done deal yet, I think that this drive sort of represented how much support there actually is within the community and how much folks actually want this to happen." — Barbara Richter, Rutland Welcomes

Tom Depoy, a member of the Rutland City Board of Aldermen is impressed by the group’s efforts. But he’s still not convinced that refugee resettlement is in the city’s best interest.

“I just happen to disagree with the scope of this plan and the secrecy of this plan.”

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Rutland City Hall where members of the Board of Aldermen meet.

“I think a majority of the Board [of Aldermen] still feels like there’s been a lot of information that’s been withheld from us and beyond that when you get to the sheer numbers — 100 refugees in our community is a lot.”

DePoy points to Manchester, New Hampshire, a city of 110,000 that sought out a moratorium on refugees a few years ago because city officials there felt overwhelmed.

Rutland City Treasurer Wendy Wilton says she too is angry at the way many city leaders wereleft out of the mayor’s decision to seek refugees.

But she says she’s even more worried about the financial cost of refugees. To better understand that, she’s been looking at the impact of newcomers in Burlington.

Burlington city officials say housing refugees has had very little impact on the city’s budget except for additional language interpretation costs for Code Enforcement.

"I think a majority of the Board [of Aldermen] still feels like there's been a lot of information that's been withheld from us and beyond that when you get to the sheer numbers ... 100 refugees in our community is a lot." — Tom Depoy, Rutland City Board of Aldermen

But in an email, Wilton pointed out Rutland’s commercial tax base is not nearly as strong as Burlington’s. So she says any increases in education and other costs can’t be distributed as well across the grand list.

And Wilton points to rising education costs in Burlington as a red flag. She says she looked at the Burlington School District Budgets from 2008 to 2016, a period which saw not only a large influx of refugees, but a nearly doubling of the school district budget. Using those figures, Wilton estimates that if Rutland becomes a resettlement community, city residents may see their taxes jump by as much as 35 percent in five years. 

But Jeanne Collins says Wilton’s conclusions are wrong.  

“The Burlington School district [budget] did go up significantly, but not because of the refugees,” she says. Collins was superintendent of the Burlington School District from 2005 until 2014. She is now superintendent of The Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union. 

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
From left to right, African refugee students Muslimo, Fartum and Fatumo stand outside Winooski Senior High School. Fartum graduated last spring.

According to Collins, “There were a number of other factors in play such as: loss of pilot funds, the introduction of preschools, a school board desire to more adequately fund for the poverty that was in the district. "So I would not consider the refugee population as the reason for the Burlington school district budget going up,” she says.

In Winooski where about a third of all students are refugees, the middle and high school hallways echo with the sounds of many languages.

Sean McMannon, Winooski’s superintendent, says if Rutland becomes a new resettlement community there will be extra education costs. But because refugee students are counted differently by the state, the per pupil costs for local taxpayers stay roughly the same. And McMannon says local school boards are the ones who control their school budgets.

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Winooski School Superintendent Sean McMannon says refugees add some education costs, but he says they also provide huge benefits to schools.

He says Rutland should also keep in mind the educational benefits refugees bring. “I think exposure to different cultures, religions, backgrounds and ethnicities is so important to our students in Vermont because they’re going to be moving into a world in University and college and eventually at work where they will be working with people from all different places around the globe.”

McMannon says coming from one of the whitest states in the nation, this type of diversity is even more important.   

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