A series of tests have revealed extensive chemical contamination on Burlington High School’s campus that could necessitate a complete tear down.
At a school board meeting on Tuesday, superintendent Tom Flanagan said that cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been detected in the buildings’ window caulking, block and brick walls, floor-tile adhesive and concrete foundation — as well as in the air and in the soil under and surrounding the school.
“Unfortunately, at each step of the process, we find more materials with PCBs,” Flanagan told the school board. “I’m growing increasingly uneasy about the extent of PCB contamination.”
He said that remediation of the chemicals would cost an estimated $7 million to $12 million — and even that might not reduce the levels of airborne PCBs to below what the state has deemed safe.
The chemicals were found last year as the district prepared for a voter-approved $70 million project to overhaul the high school and the tech center.
But the district shuttered much of the campus, located off of North Avenue in the city’s New North End, the day before classes were to begin last September after testing showed PCBs in some of the buildings.
Queen City high schoolers learned almost fully remotely until March, when they began attending classes two days a week at a former Macy’s department store downtown. The school district funded a renovation of the building and is operating there under a three-and-a-half-year lease it signed in December.
Initially, district leaders thought it would take until late summer to figure out the extent of the PCB contamination and decide how to move forward. But Flanagan said that the latest testing results should spur the board to make a decision as early as next month.
“The purpose of tonight really is to make very clear that there’s a serious problem in this project, and we need to take action sooner rather than later,” he told the 12-member school board on Tuesday.
Board members expressed their concerns about the most recent findings.
“Obviously we’ve been trying to patch a sinking ship, so what is it going to take for you guys to let us know this is actually the Titanic?” said school commissioner Jean Waltz. “It just seems like it’s getting worse.”
Commissioner Jeff Wick flagged the high costs for PCB mitigation and suggested that it was time to “stop the bleed” by abandoning the $70 million renovation and moving forward with a plan to build an entirely new high school.
Unclear is whether a new school would — or could — be built on the current campus, or at a different city location.
“I’m sitting here having an anxiety attack because I’m thinking, Where would we go?” commissioner Martine Gulick said. “Maybe you all have information that I don’t have, but that scares me.”
Tom Peterson, a consultant hired to oversee the $70 million renovation project, suggested it could be problematic to build a new high school on the current site. Even if PCB mitigation can be handled cost-effectively, the Institute Road campus is 57 years old and, with PCBs in the soil and in the air, there would be long-term costs for monitoring the buildings and potentially additional remediation.
Building a new facility at a different location would be “a huge lift,” he said, but “at the end of that, you will have a beautiful new high school.”
Flanagan capped the discussion by addressing the board. “It’s no one’s fault that we’re here,” the superintendent said. “We learned about this problem through doing our due diligence.”
As leaders, he said, the school commissioners are being tasked with making hard decisions.
“There are ways out of this and into a high school that we can be proud of,” said Flanagan, “and we need to stay positive and optimistic and know that it’s our responsibility to keep our community safe, and to keep doing this work together.”
The school board’s Building Construction Oversight Committee is scheduled to meet at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday to discuss the issue further.