A March 2021 ribbon cutting at the downtown high school
The Burlington School Board is moving forward with plans for a new high school.
At a meeting Tuesday night, school commissioners agreed to pay $910,000 to three firms that submitted a joint bid to provide a conceptual design and cost estimate for a new high school and technical center on Institute Road.The work is an important step, as the district hopes to put a bond to pay for the project on the ballot in November 2022.
If voters approve a bond of an estimated $125 million, the district would owe the three firms — Freeman, French, Freeman; Colin Lindberg & Associates; and Drummey Rosane Anderson — an additional $5.7 million. That fee, which is based on a percentage of the bond, covers costs for "basic design services such as architectural, structural, [mechanical, electrical and plumbing], landscape and civil engineering," according to a memo from the district's real estate advisors.
The contract has yet to be written, district superintendent Tom Flanagan said, but it will provide a way out if something prevented the district from following through with the project.
The district received five formal bids, interviewed three finalists, and decided on the chosen group of firms because of their competitive cost estimate, strong qualifications and positive references, said the district's finance director, Nathan Lavery. Freeman, French, Freeman designed the University of Vermont's Discovery Hall, which was completed in 2017.
Progress on a new school comes even as the district considers the ramifications of new state "action levels" regarding airborne polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The high school was closed last fall after the chemicals were detected in the air at levels above the state's "screening levels." The district later voted to ditch a $70 million school renovation project, abandon and tear down the building, and build a new one.
But the new state guidance is well above the screening levels, prompting discussion about the possibility of reopening the school.
Flanagan, though, seemed to shoot down that possibility, and members of the school board appeared to agree with his assessment. The superintendent cited memos from the district's three consulting firms stating that widespread PCB contamination in the school's walls, floors, ceiling, soil and air would complicate any return to the building.
Though the school action levels allow for higher levels of airborne PCBs, a memo from Peterson Consulting says, "they do not relieve the district of its obligations under state and federal regulations to remove PCB materials from the buildings."
"Any level of increased occupancy of the building, whether temporary or permanent, will entail extensive sampling, testing, planning, agency approvals and significant cost," the memo continues.
The board also released a document it said were answers from the state about various questions, though it's unclear who or what agency provided the answers. Because there is "extensive contamination of building materials at BHS," the document says, reoccupying it would need to be discussed with the Environmental Protection Agency.
The district would also be required to do additional testing of materials and air to evaluate whether the building was safe, the document says. If the school district wanted to reoccupy parts of the building, it would have to submit a revised occupancy plan to the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and the state Department of Health.
School Commissioner Jeff Wick said he was initially excited about the possibility of reopening the building. But the state response and the consultants' memos "took some of the wind out of my sails," Wick said.
"I do believe it is time for a new high school, a 21st-century high school," Wick said later in the meeting, "Whether the taxpayers will support it is what keeps me up at night."
Several school commissioners said that Burlington has been in need of a new high school for years, a message they said they hoped to convey to the public.
"Even before we found the PCBs, I want to remind folks that BHS was a sick building," Commissioner Martine Gulick said. "It was in need of an HVAC complete redo. It had a leaky roof. There was water all over the building. The window casings and windows were falling out. It was an [Americans with Disabilities Act] nightmare ... So I do hope we get a chance to revisit those issues that are still there, and will be until we make a decisive move."