The Burlington School Board is moving forward with plans for a new high school and technical center despite that decision being based on an apparent miscalculation by the Vermont Health Department regarding PCB safety levels in schools.
“We understand your frustration and we are committed to doing all we can to keep as much of the burden off of Burlington taxpayers as possible,” Russ Elek, a communication specialist for the Burlington School District, told True North in a recent email.
On Dec. 14, the school’s commissioners voted to pay $910,000 to three firms that collectively submitted a bid for conceptual design and cost estimates for the building to be located on Institute Road.
They hope to have a bond ready for a public vote by November of next year. Early estimates for the cost to taxpayers are $125 million. Estimates for renovating the old school was about $70 million.
It had previously been believed that the existing school building had excessive levels of airborne polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as PCBs. In 2020 officials determined cancer-causing PCB levels at the school were too high, and that a new building had to be built.
However, in November, the Vermont Department of Health suddenly revised the PCB threshold for what’s to be considered acceptable levels. The threshold was raised from 15 nanograms per cubic meter to 100, meaning that most of the rooms in the old building are no longer in violation.
According to Elek, some of the room PCB levels were still showing that work needed to be done. In his email, he listed some of the ongoing issues which led to a decision to continue with the new building — many of them being unrelated to the PCBs.
“We discovered the pervasive nature of PCBs during routine testing that was required by our $70 million renovation plan approved by taxpayers in 2018,” he wrote.
Elek said the campus needed “significant improvements to address aging and outdated learning spaces” since the building does not meet Collaborative High-Performance School Standards. He also said the school had “1960s classrooms,” along with small science labs and old STEM equipment that needed upgrades.
The list of non-PCB-related issues Elek said need to be addressed include: “$30+ million already needed for deferred maintenance (crumbling infrastructure; outdated plumbing, electrical, heating, and ventilation systems; insufficient insulation and windows; outdated tech infrastructure) and the fact that it does not meet current accessibility standards (comprised of six academic buildings with unheated, outdoor walkways; seven stories from top to bottom; elevators outdated and in undesirable locations).
At a Dec. 7 meeting, Burlington Superintendent Tom Flanagan told school commissioners, “I still believe with the information that I have that that’s the right decision for us. I understand it is a harder decision now after the new action levels.”
In addition to having the city build a new school over inaccurate PCB safety guidelines, the state Legislature passed a bill last year calling for another $4.5 million from taxpayers so that all Vermont schools could be tested for PCBs.
News reports previously portrayed the decision for a new school as being primarily because of perceived PCB dangers.
“The Burlington School Board says it will build the community’s new high school near the site of the old school that can no longer be used because it was found to be contaminated with dangerous chemicals,” The Burlington Free Press reported in November.
WCAX reported the school “closed to students in September 2020 after potentially cancer-causing PCBs were found, and the students were moved to the old Macy’s building in downtown Burlington.”
In October, Burlington School Board Chair Clare Wool expressed awareness that taxpayers are already wary of taking on new financial commitments.
“We know there is certainly a bandwidth that the taxpayers will withstand regardless of our capacity to borrow,” she said.