September 30, 2022
This week, ballots for the November election landed in your mailboxes. By now you know that Burlington School District is seeking voter support of a $165m bond to build a new high school and technical center in the Queen City. (Here’s what it could look like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxxKRcKbxQI)
I believe our plan to build a new school is the best plan forward for our students, taxpayers, and community. Four years ago we came to voters requesting permission to borrow $70m to completely redo the campus due to its inaccessibility, aging infrastructure, and outdated learning spaces. The need was so great that the plan was to demolish multiple buildings on the site and build new classroom spaces around the gym, auditorium, and library! Even though we were going to completely tear down some buildings, the project was officially considered a renovation, requiring us to conduct hazardous materials testing. Unfortunately, that testing showed an unfathomable amount of PCBs in the air throughout the campus, which required us to move out of the building and, eventually, into a temporary school at the old Macy’s downtown.
Since we began talking about building a new school, I have heard two questions the most when engaging with the community, and I would like to take a minute of your time to answer those here.
1) What happened to that $70m bond? I’m happy to say all but $4m of that bond has been returned or was never borrowed in the first place, meaning taxpayers have seen very little impact to date in their taxes from that bond approval. The $4m that we did spend was spent on the design of the ReEnvisioning project (when we thought we were moving forward) and hazardous materials testing (including PCBs). As we look to voters for a bond in November, please know that we are not asking for a bond on top of the previous amount, as we no longer have access to those funds.
2) Why can’t we just remediate the PCBs and move back in? Throughout testing, we learned that the PCBs are in the walls, the ceilings, the glue in our floor tiles, the caulking around the windows, in the soils, and in the concrete foundation. And even though Vermont has increased their threshold for the presence of airborne PCBs, because now know that PCBs exist, environmental regulations would require us to remove EVERY source of PCBs in order to remediate our building. In some cases, this would mean removing entire walls of the buildings. The cost alone to simply remove the sources mentioned above would be incredibly expensive, and that would be just the beginning. We would then be left with a shell of a building and would have to build back significant portions of the buildings that hadn’t been slated for demolition, while also removing all of the soil from the site, before being able to begin the renovation portion of the project. And even if we were able to do all of these things, we would never be able to prove our building is PCB free and we would need to undergo costly PCB testing for the lifespan of that building.
In short, if the building was a car, we would be saying that it is totaled.
While the plan to build a new high school will be cheaper in the long run, I also want you to know that I realize that the bond is a big ask. That is why we have worked hard to reduce the bond amount and will continue to do so. We have identified $25m in District resources to go toward the project ($10m from American Rescue Plan, $5m from our budget saving and surplus and $10m from the 2017 Capital Plan Bond) and we have used another $10m in grants to move half of BTC’s programs to the airport (saving us $20m in the process). We also continue to pursue public and private funding. Last week we learned we have already raised $50K in private donations, and this week I sat down with the Governor’s Cabinet to again ask for support and I asked City Council to consider waiving $165,000 in project costs. As a reminder, we plan to borrow the bond over three to four years, so while we need to approve the bond as soon as possible so that we can begin work in January, there will still be time to continue asking for funds as we go through this process. As Election Day nears, I give you my word that I will continue looking for and asking for money to support this project so that we can borrow less than what we are asking for.
Thanks for listening,