Courtesy of Burlington School District ©️ Seven Days
A rendering of a new Burlington High School and Technical Center, looking northwest
The Burlington City Council on Monday unanimously approved the school district's request to place a bond of up to $165 million on the city’s November 8 ballot.
The money would fund the construction of a new high school and technical center, as well as the demolition of the existing school and the cleanup of toxic chemicals in the building materials and soil.
The school district estimates that the total cost for the construction project will be $190 million: $134.4 million for construction costs; $34.1 million for soft costs such as design fees, project management, fixtures and furnishings; and $21.3 million for demolition and remediation of toxic chemicals known as PCBs. The price tag includes a 10 percent contingency fee to account for unforeseen expenses.
The school district plans to use $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, $10 million from an existing capital bond and $5 million in district surpluses to cover some of the cost.
If the project is approved by voters on Election Day, Burlington will be poised to build the first new public high school in the state in almost 30 years. According to the Vermont Agency of Education, the last one built in Vermont was Rutland High School, which was completed in 1994.
Before Monday's vote, superintendent Tom Flanagan asked city councilors for their support. The new school will serve as a community hub and "provide flexibility, accessibility, light, a welcoming and safe campus, and connection to the outdoors — all things we have heard matter to our students and the community," Flanagan said.
He outlined some of the measures the school district has taken to reduce the tax impact to voters.
The district plans to move more than half of the technical center’s programs — including aviation, automotive and manufacturing — off-site. A $10 million federal grant secured by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to expand the tech center's aviation program will help fund that move. In June, the school district said it was in talks with electric aviation company Beta Technologies to locate some tech center programs at a facility the company is planning to build at the airport.
Additionally, the high school’s two alternative programs, OnTop and Horizons, will remain in their current New North End locations of Rock Point and St. Mark’s Church, respectively — which the district says will save around $5.6 million.
Even if voters approve the bond, Flanagan said the school district is still committed to public and private fundraising to ensure they will not need to borrow the full $165 million. In an August 10 memo
to the city council, Flanagan said the school district had requested $2.8 million in federal funds from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) office to cover the bulk of a stormwater project associated with the new construction, but it was not approved. The school district has also asked the state for money to cover the cost of PCB remediation, as well as $20 million to build the technical center, which serves students from across the region. The district is continuing to pursue those requests, Flanagan wrote.
The district also provided information about the bond's tax impact
for homeowners, which would be phased in over three to four years. With an $165 million bond, the school district budget would increase approximately $11.6 million each year, while residents would see a tax rate increase of 15.67 percent. Assuming a 20-year bond with a 3.5 percent interest rate, a Burlington resident with a home valued at $370,000 would pay an estimated $805 more in taxes per year. A resident with a $700,000 home, meanwhile, would see an annual tax increase of $1,524. For every $25,000 increase in housesite value, the education tax is estimated to increase by about $55 per year.
However, the tax rate increase would likely be tempered by a new pupil weighting law that goes into effect in fiscal year 2025. It benefits districts such as Burlington that have a high number of students in poverty and English Language Learners. It’s unclear exactly how much the legislation will offset the tax increase associated with the bond, district officials said.
"Our school board and I strongly believe that the bond amount is appropriate, prudent and necessary, and that it balances the realities of the tax impact with the need for a high school and technical center," Flanagan told city councilors.
In comments before the vote, councilors expressed strong support for the project, while also raising concerns about the hefty price tag.
Despite feeling the project is a "must do," Councilor Mark Barlow (I-North District) said he
continues to worry about affordability for Burlington taxpayers. Barlow asked school officials to speak more about additional funding sources that the district is pursuing.
Finance director Nathan Lavery said the district is looking at programs that help with brownfield cleanup to help remediate PCB contamination, as well as funding from Burlington Electric to help with energy efficiency. It's also considering federal economic development grants to help build the tech center.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said he strongly supports the bond, but "at the same time, it's important that we acknowledge that we're on the cusp of a very significant financial commitment that will impact this community for years.
"Burlingtonians who have long paid high property taxes will see significant increases in the years ahead ... and the community will have to defer other needs that we're not already committed to for a significant number of years as we make this new commitment," he said.
Weinberger said he appreciated the steps the school district has taken to minimize the financial impact of the project. He also touted a new memorandum of understanding between the district and city council that commits the two bodies to continued efforts to secure new outside funding over the course of the project. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the MOU calls for avoiding new general obligation borrowing until approximately 2030.
"I'm confident that if all of us ... remain focused over the next three years on achieving construction savings and securing state and federal project funding, we will ultimately be able to limit the necessary new bonding to significantly less than the $165 million maximum authority that is being requested here tonight," Weinberger said.
In a statement released after the vote, Flanagan thanked the mayor and city council for supporting the school district's request.
“Today’s vote underscores that our city leaders recognize that we need a permanent home for students that is accessible and designed to promote deep learning experiences for all," Flanagan wrote. "I look forward to sharing more about this project as we gear up for the vote this fall.”