Burlington Voters Say Yes to $165 Million High School Bond | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Burlington Voters Say Yes to $165 Million High School Bond


Published November 8, 2022 at 8:52 p.m.

An architectural rendering of the new high school - COURTESY OF BURLINGTON SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • Courtesy of Burlington School District
  • An architectural rendering of the new high school
Updated, 9:45 p.m.

Burlington voters on Tuesday gave the green light to a $165 million bond to build a new high school and technical center. Seventy-six percent of  Queen City voters approved the measure; 11,902 voted yes compared to 3,781 who voted no.

The passage gives the school district the go-ahead to commence a massive, multiyear construction project, which will require tearing down Burlington's original Institute Road high school and building a new 250,000-square-foot building in its place. The district plans to begin work in December or January, with a projected completion date of August 2025.

At Simple Roots Brewing in the New North End, school officials and supporters of the project gathered to watch results come in. Communications staffer Russ Elek stood on a chair and read results as they came in from each ward; the crowd cheered each time.

"We're just feeling really grateful for the community," superintendent Tom Flanagan said. "I think Burlingtonians really voted on their values. What I've heard from the beginning is, [we] deeply care about education and equity in our community. And I want to say to the people who have worried about the cost, we need to go find resources to support this project still, and we need everyone to come together to do that."

Mayor Miro Weinberger also expressed enthusiasm about the result. 

"It's a big, exciting night for the city. It's been a very challenging period not to have a permanent high school," Weinberger said. "We were facing this challenge at a time of real financial uncertainty, pain, inflation, and amidst that, it appears that Burlington voters have decisively decided to fix this problem, make sure we have a permanent high school just a few years from now."

The school district determined a new building was necessary after high levels of airborne PCBs were found on its Institute Road campus in fall 2020, ahead of a planned $70 million renovation of the original, deteriorating high school, which first opened to students in 1964. Since March 2021, Burlington teens have been attending class downtown in a renovated former Macy’s department store, which some students have said is an inadequate space in which to learn.
In the weeks before Election Day, school district officials, school board members and residents made a final push to get the bond passed through newspaper ads, grassroots organizing efforts, and conversations over coffee and on social media. The Burlington Students Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 1996 to support district initiatives, paid for lawn signs printed with the phrase “WE NEED A HIGH SCHOOL.”

Meanwhile, former school commissioner David Kirk purchased signs urging voters to reject the bond and put them around town with the help of volunteers, but the opposition appeared less organized.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger also expressed concerns in recent months  that the high school project could lower the city's credit rating and reduce its ability to pay for other municipal improvements in coming years. But Weinberger ultimately threw his support behind the bond, telling Seven Days in September that the “vision of Burlington as a place of opportunity, as a place where people of all backgrounds want to live, is threatened” if the city doesn’t have a permanent high school.

The passage of the bond means a likely increase in property taxes for homeowners, who are still smarting from last year’s property reappraisal, which raised taxes for many of them. The $165 million will be borrowed over three years, beginning in 2023, with the tax increase phased in beginning in 2024.

The school district estimates taxes will increase by 2.85 percent in 2024, by another 6.65 percent in 2025, and by 6.17 percent in 2026, for a total impact of 15.67 percent .
Estimates released by the school district show that, when the money is fully borrowed, a home assessed at $370,000 — close to the city's median assessed value — would pay an additional $805 a year in taxes, or about $67 more a month.

Residents who pay taxes based on their income would owe considerably less.  The school district also believes that a change the state legislature recently made in the state's school funding formula will partially offset some of the tax impact.

The school district vowed to do everything in its power to reduce the amount it has to borrow for the new school, including seeking state and federal grants and conducting private fundraising.

"Every dollar we bring in means less money we have to borrow," superintendent Flanagan wrote in a community update the week before Election Day. "I promise you we will continue to turn over every rock to find every available dollar."

To date, the Burlington Students Foundation has received around $62,500 in donations for the new building. Flanagan also announced last month that the school district plans to sue Monsanto, the agrochemical company that manufactured PCBs until 1979. The school district has said any money recouped in a lawsuit would help pay for the new building and decrease the burden on taxpayers.
Weinberger said more can be done to mitigate the expense for taxpayers.

"I don't think it would be right if Burlingtonians had to shoulder all of the cost of this regional technical facility," the mayor told Seven Days. "It wouldn't be right for Burlingtonians to have to shoulder all of the environmental cleanup, so we're going to work very hard to make sure it doesn't unfold that way."

He also said, "We're all very aware that our work is not done."

Derek Brouwer and Rachel Hellman contributed reporting.