Budget & Finance

Students Displaced by PCBs to Get New High School as a Bond Measure Passes

By Mark Lieberman — November 09, 2022 3 min read
The entrance to Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., on Sept. 19, 2022. The school has been closed due to the discovery of high levels of PCBs.
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Students in Burlington, Vt., who have been attending school in a retrofitted Macy’s department store building for the last year and a half will get a new $190 million high school in 2025 after voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a bond for most of that sum.

The former Burlington High School campus shut down in August 2020 after crews found concerning levels of the toxic chemical compounds known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in several buildings. Since then, operations shifted a mile away to a former department store in the center of the city’s downtown area, overlooking Lake Champlain.

District leaders were eager to secure public support for a $165 million bond to pay for the bulk of demolition and construction on a long-awaited new facility. They projected annual tax increases of up to $805 for a home worth $370,000.

Slightly more than three-quarters of roughly 16,000 voters supported the measure, according to unofficial results published Wednesday morning on the city of Burlington’s website.

“Today’s vote gives us great confidence in the future and a clear direction forward for our students, staff, and community,” Tom Flanagan, the district’s superintendent, wrote in a statement published Tuesday night on the district’s website.

PCB contamination in schools is a looming crisis for district leaders across the country. Researchers estimate thousands of schools built between 1950 and 1980 still contain harmful levels of the deadly chemicals once widely used in construction.

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The exterior of Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., on Sept. 19, 2022. The school has been closed due to the discovery of high levels of PCBs.
The former Burlington High School building in in Burlington, Vt., stands vacant after students were moved to another site due to chemical contamination.
Luke Awtry for Education Week

In Burlington, the adjustment to the PCB-forced school closure wasn’t all bad in the view of some students and staff. Students at the temporary location have enjoyed visiting downtown eateries during lunch. The special education classroom is much more spacious than the one on the old campus. The escalator, one of the only ones in the entire state, is a novelty.

But these silver linings didn’t come cheap. The district’s rent of the Macy’s building from a local developer is $1 million a year. And it invested more than $4 million, with help from state funding, to install soundproofing and other upgrades to make the brightly lit but bland interior of the retail space look and feel more conducive to learning.

Even with those challenges, some critics worried about asking too much of Burlington taxpayers, who already in 2018 approved a $70 million bond for high school renovations. Early work on that project led to the PCB discovery.

Burlington’s mayor, Miro Weinberger, initially pressed for a smaller price tag for the bond, warning that a larger investment would jeopardize the city’s finances. But supporters argued that Burlington High’s 1,100 students deserve a massive upgrade to the decrepit facilities they were using before.

One Burlington teacher shared with Education Week that her son, who needs crutches to walk, was frequently late to class in the old building, or that the elevators that could transport him were broken. Another recalled nicknaming some of the old building’s rooms “cloffices”—offices not much bigger than closets. Windows were foggy from broken seals, and ventilation was so poor that current Principal Lauren McBride hung blankets from her office windows to keep cold air out.

District administrators worked hard to convey ahead of time to voters that they’re pursuing every avenue for additional funding to reduce the burden on taxpayers, including applying for more than a dozen grant programs and suing Monsanto, the sole U.S. manufacturer of PCBs, for damages. Monsanto denies culpability. COVID relief funds are filling some of the $25 million difference between the bond and the projected price tag of the project.

Demolition of the old campus will begin as early as January. Students will attend Downtown BHS until the new building opens; Farrington plans to redevelop the Macy’s building for housing and retail.

“You have our word that we will work hard to keep the impact of this project down as much as possible while delivering a beautiful building that supports community connection and deeper learning for all,” Flanagan wrote.

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