Burlington superintendent Tom Flanagan at Tuesday's meeting
The Burlington School Board voted unanimously on Tuesday to build a new high school and technical center on its New North End campus, dashing the prospect of a permanent downtown school.
Superintendent Tom Flanagan recommended the site following a six-month process led by real estate consultants White + Burke. The firm initially identified 16 possible locations, then whittled it down to three: two sites on the Institute Road campus in the New North End, and the downtown Gateway Block on Main Street.
"We did a serious review of the entire city and all the possible sites that were there," Flanagan said at Tuesday's meeting. "And we have weighed the site evaluations, feedback from the community, and our own assessment of the educational needs of the community."
The new building, which the district hopes to complete in less than four years, would go up in the area east of the contaminated high school, between the old building and North Avenue. Students have not attended classes at that school since September 2020, when elevated levels of carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were detected in the air and building materials.
Last fall, high schoolers began learning at a temporary school on Cherry Street, in a former Macy's department store. The school district is almost one year into a 3.5-year lease of that space.
At Tuesday's board meeting and in a memo to the board, Flanagan explained why he chose what's known as Institute Road North. Many of those who provided feedback, including New American members of the school community, preferred the location, he said. The space is big enough to accommodate all high school and tech center programs. And it is also accessible by several modes of transit, including bike and bus, and has ample outdoor space and playing fields.
Flanagan said that building there will give the district the best chance to meet an "ambitious August 2025 opening target." Furthermore, "it is the most fiscally responsible option," he said.
Last month, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger expressed strong support for the Gateway Block — which includes Memorial Auditorium, a city-owned parking garage, a fire station and several privately owned parcels. In a September 10 letter to Flanagan and the school board, Weinberger wrote that the area "offers a number of promising opportunities for cost-saving and value adding collaboration, totaling potentially tens of millions of dollars, that will not be possible on any other site in the city."
But Flanagan said that site had a number of challenges. It was too small to accommodate all high school and tech center programs. And there were unknown development challenges that could be expensive and time-consuming. For one, there's an old, brick-and-cobblestone sewer and stormwater line that runs under the site that crews would have needed to relocate and rebuild before the new school went up.
Before commissioners voted Tuesday on Flanagan's recommendation, Burlington Education Association president Beth Fialko Casey called the decision a "momentous" one for teachers.
"It is momentous for us because we feel an urgent need for permanence," said Fialko Casey, an English teacher. "We are beyond thrilled that our future building will, should you choose to select it, bring us back to the beauty and accessibility of 52 Institute Road."
In a discussion before the vote, school commissioner Polly Vanderputten said she had some "paranoia" about the low threshold set by the state for PCB levels, and said she wanted to ensure that there was no contamination on the Institute Road North site.
Flanagan and property services director Marty Spaulding said that testing has shown that there are not elevated levels of PCBs in the soil where the new high school would be built.
Spaulding said it would take "a couple of years" to demolish the old building. The district wants to begin constructing the new building before that demolition project is complete.
Following the vote, board chair Clare Wool read a statement on behalf of the entire board.
"It is our obligation as a school board to advocate for our schools and adhere to sound fiscal stewardship," the statement said. "We believe that not having a permanent high school and technical center puts our city in a state of emergency and needs to be a top priority when making financial decisions."
Wool said the school board plans to put a bond for the new high school on the ballot in November 2022.