The Burlington, Vermont school board decided this week to stop a multi-million dollar renovation project and not reopen the high school facility. Last year potentially cancer causing PCB’s were discovered in the buildings and grounds and the superintendent and school officials recommended the board now change course and build a new high school.
In November 2018 city voters approved a $70 million bond to completely renovate the Burlington High School buildings. But last September air testing detected levels of PCBs above federal and state approved levels and the buildings were closed. Students attended classes remotely and are now attending in person classes in a converted department store in the city’s downtown.
During this week’s meeting of the Burlington School Board Superintendent Tom Flanagan said it is no longer possible to complete the high school renovation project and recommended the project be ended.
“We are at the point that it’s not clear that even if we did remediate the building and spent the $7 to 12-million that it is estimated that it may cost to do that, that we would be able to get back into a building that met the state screening value for PCB’s in the air," Flanagan said. "And the reality that the PCB levels are in more places than we originally anticipated. They were in the concrete flooring, in the window caulking, in the walls, in the ceiling, in the soil and in the air. We, I believe strongly, have enough information now to end the project and move as quickly as we can on building a new high school.”
Ward 2 School Board Commissioner Stephen Carey asked Flanagan about the extent of contamination.
“The property on North Avenue right now it sounds like everything is contaminated," Carey said. "Does that include the gym and the auditorium and the fields, the football field and the baseball field as well? Those are being used right now aren’t they?”
“So there was one part of the building that had really low levels of PCB’s and is safe by a very rigorous Vermont standard," Flanagan answered. "And so we are able to continue to use that space. But because the building is separated by tunnels and walkways different buildings have different levels.”
Ward 5 Commissioner Mike Fisher expressed concerns about the financial implications to the $70 million bond that voters approved for the original renovation project.
“We’ve received approval to borrow a certain amount of money," Fisher said. "If we make this decision and we pivot and we say we’re not going to move forward with that what happens to that bond money? That bonding authority that we have and the money that we’ve already bonded? But also I want to just raise up to the rest of the board that what we’re talking about if we look for another site we’re looking at a larger ask from the taxpayers. You know it’s going to be significant.”
School Board commissioners unanimously approved ending the high school ReEnvisioning construction plan.
During a virtual meeting the day after the vote, Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger said while he’s not surprised by the turn of events the situation is troubling.
“This is a crisis for the community that we do not have a permanent high school at this moment," the mayor said. "I appreciate the decisive action that Superintendent Flanagan and the board are taking on this. I mean it was great work that they got this interim high school set up in the downtown. And I credit them for quickly coming to a conclusion that they needed to change course and abandon the old plan and come up with a new one. It will be expensive to build a new building. There is work that can be done to ensure that not all of that expense is borne by Burlington taxpayers.”
The School Board also approved Lauren McBride to serve as Burlington High School Principal effective July 1st. She has been the Assistant Principal of the high school since 2017 and is the current interim principal.