Burlington voters weigh a $165 million bond for a new high school

Burlington High School on October 20, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Leaders of the effort to approve a $165 million bond issue to build a new high school in Burlington have landed on a fairly direct catchphrase: “We need a high school.”

Blue lawn signs in support of the vote were prominently displayed in Burlington ahead of the Nov. 8 election when residents will settle the bond issue.

But in recent weeks opponents of the effort have also tried to get their arguments across – mainly through red lawn signs reading “enough is enough”. Opponents of the bond say the price is too high.

For the Burlington School District, however, defeat would be challenging.

“We’re without a high school if this doesn’t happen, simply put,” said Clare Wool, Chair of the Burlington School Board.

Since 2020, Burlington High School has operated from a temporary location in the former downtown Macy’s department store after polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were discovered in the building.

According to Wool, leasing Macy’s costs the district $1.5 million a year. This agreement is scheduled to end in 2025, so even if the bond measure were passed, the construction schedule would be aggressive.

But according to Superintendent Tom Flanagan, it’s achievable.

“Right now, 2025 is absolutely possible,” Flanagan said. “We believe. And that’s what we’ve heard from all of our experts working on it.”

Don Sinex, who owns the former Macy’s building, said in an email Thursday that he plans to develop the building for “mixed use” once the high school’s lease expires in July 2025.

“I was already working on a comprehensive redevelopment plan before the school board contacted me about the possibility of leasing the Macy’s building while the school board determined the more permanent solution for the high school,” Sinex said. Once the lease was in place, Sinex said it put those development plans on hold.

The ability to extend the lease without a new school in 2025 would not be Sinex’s “first choice,” he said. But should the school need the Macy’s building, “I might consider that if such a request is made.”

Burlington High School’s Institute Road campus has been empty since PCB contamination was discovered. Originally, this building was earmarked for a renovation project, but contamination caused the school principals to push for an entirely new building. The district considered several locations before finally returning to the original campus, where construction would take place after the old high school was demolished and PCB contamination cleaned up.

The district is currently planning to sue agrochemical company Monsanto for damages related to the PCBs, including the cost of building a new school.

Opponents of the bond vote include Burlington Republican Party leader Christopher-Aaron Felker, who said in an emailed statement that the amount of the bond exceeds the city’s borrowing capacity.

“While it’s true that anything we invest in our children’s education is money well spent, we can’t spend more than the taxpayer can afford,” Felker said in an email. “Our city simply cannot afford this project in its current form.”

Ericka Redic, a Burlington resident and Libertarian candidate for the US House of Representatives, said it was “irresponsible and unscrupulous” for the district to hand over such a large dollar amount to voters.

The estimate of the project is $190 million, the district said. With $25 million in contributions from the district itself, he hopes to be able to borrow $165 million in bonds for the remainder of the project.

Taking the full amount would result in tax increases for Burlington residents. The school district shared the tax implications showing payments would increase beginning in 2024 and then peak from 2026 to 2044.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said Thursday in an emailed statement that he intends to vote “yes” on the bond “because our kids need and deserve the great high school and we get it so fast.” have to do as possible”.

But Weinberger also said he shares concerns some have about the resulting tax and borrowing implications. Weinberger said the city and school district recently agreed to work together to find other sources of funding that would reduce the tax burden and project costs. The city and district will also limit other borrowing “until we are back within the debt targets,” said Weinberger.

In 2018, Burlington voters approved a $70 million bond issue, but it was only for a renovation. PCB contamination was discovered during the planning phase for this renovation. All but $4 million of the $70 million were returned or never loaned out, the school district said. The funds were spent on project design and PCB testing, according to the district’s website.

Wool, the school board chairwoman, said she believes Burlington has a reputation for supporting students and that the bond vote outcome will reflect that.

“I truly believe that every citizen wants the best for our students,” Wool said. “And that’s ultimately why we work hard and why I remain optimistic.”

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