After months of remote learning, Burlington High School students will return to classrooms early next year in the vacant Macy's building downtown.
Nine school commissioners voted Tuesday night in favor of leasing the former department store for three and a half years while the district decides what to do about cancer-causing chemicals found on campus. Commissioners Monika Ivancic (Ward 7) and Kendra Sowers (North District) abstained; board Chair Clare Wool (Ward 6) also did not cast a vote.
The district will pay $1.2 million the first year, and rent will increase by 3 percent each subsequent year. It will also pay more than $3 million to renovate the building, which is owned by the developers of the adjacent CityPlace Burlington site. Superintendent Tom Flanagan said the district is "aggressively" pursuing state aid to help pay for the new digs.
Commissioner Stephen Carey (Ward 2) said that while it's not ideal, the arrangement gets students back into classrooms as soon as possible and presents creative learning opportunities.
"I'm excited about the potential for a dynamic downtown high school that's connected to the city in the way that none of our schools are," Carey said. "I think our community and our students are going to adapt really well to it."
The Macy's plan will cost $10 million over the duration of the lease, whereas renting trailers could cost north of $13 million, according to Nathan Lavery, the district's senior director of finance. The trailers wouldn't have been ready until late spring 2021; Macy's could be ready by February, Flanagan said.
A handful of parents called into the virtual meeting to urge commissioners to choose the trailers. They lamented that the Macy's building is windowless and that classroom walls would be just eight feet high, not floor to ceiling, which could create noise issues.
Adam Bluestein, a parent of two Burlington high-schoolers, said students would be attending classes next to a construction site if CityPlace moves forward as planned. He cautioned the district against entering an agreement with CityPlace owner Don Sinex, who city officials have blamed for the project's lengthy delays and who Bluestein called a "notorious bad actor."
"I don't think we need to add the school district to his list of dupes," Bluestein said.
Two parents suggested that the district consolidate two smaller elementary or middle schools, freeing up a building for the high school to use. Other callers didn't endorse either option but said it's imperative for students to return to traditional learning as soon as possible.
"Our kids are really suffering, and it's not always the kids you would expect," parent Megan Munson-Warnken said. "They're kids who didn't have preexisting mental health conditions who are now entering month eight or nine of deep isolation."
The Macy's space will be outfitted with classrooms and an enclosed music room and multipurpose space. Students will be able to continue using the Burlington High School gym, where PCB readings were within acceptable levels, Flanagan said. The Macy's agreement is contingent on the results of noise monitoring and soil testing at the site, which should be complete in the next few weeks, he said.
Commissioner Martine Gulick (Ward 4) urged parents to get on board with the Macy's plan because teenagers "take their cues from adults."
"If they hear that what we're doing is terrible and horrible, that is going to have an impact on them," she said. "I hope we can try to spin this in a way that really shows our commitment to them and to our community."
Meantime, high school students will get at least one day of in-person learning at Edmunds Elementary School every Wednesday, starting next week. The district had also asked the University of Vermont for classroom space, but the university turned down the request due to the recent surge in coronavirus cases.
"Bringing an additional 1,100 people to UVM’s campus was not in the best interest of public health," the university wrote in a statement Tuesday evening.