Board chooses design team for new Burlington high school

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BURLINGTON, Vt. – The Burlington School Board has selected a design team to lead the development of a new high school, and continued an ongoing conversation about the future of the former site.

A joint bid between Freeman, French and Freeman, Colin Lindberg and Associates, and Drummey Rosane Anderson was approved unanimously by the school board after a recommendation from Superintendent Thomas Flanagan.

“This bid combines experience, knowledge of our schools, an innovative approach, and the most competitive cost structure,” Flanagan wrote in a memo to the board.

He said falling behind by a few months in the design phase of the new high school would have a domino effect that could delay its grand opening by a year.

“We’re not hurrying, but we’re on an aggressive timeline with our building,” Flanagan said.

Prior to that vote, the board continued a discussion about the former Burlington High School, which has been closed off to students for over a year due to PCB contamination.

Recent changes to the statewide standard for acceptable PCB levels had some wondering if the building could be reoccupied in some capacity, but according to three environmental consulting firms district officials contacted, it would be a complicated and uncertain process.

According to Peterson Consulting, state and federal officials have said that despite the new standards, the high school cannot be re-occupied right now due to ‘extensive contamination’ in the building, the extent of which is largely unknown.

“Any level of increased occupancy of the building, whether temporary or permanent, will entail extensive sampling, testing, planning, agency approvals and significant cost,” the firm’s memo read. “Most of the reasons for canceling the renovation project in the spring of 2021 still remain.”

Burlington School Board Vice Chair Jeff Wick urged people to read all three consulting firm memos to get a full understanding of the challenges involved with re-occupying the high school.

“Sadly, it took some of the wind out of my sails with respect to whether we could reoccupy BHS even temporarily,” Wick said.

The firms estimated it would cost at least $12 million to decontaminate Burlington High School, a cost that is unavoidable regardless of whether the building is re-occupied or demolished.

The former, however, would likely have additional costs that may not be easy to spot initially. After PCBs are removed, entire sections of the building may need to be reassembled in order for students to go back in.

“Paint is a good example of something where it doesn’t sound like much, but all of a sudden if you have to grind paint off an entire building, that can get very expensive,” said BSD Financial Director Nathan Lavery. “We have an estimate of what we know, but we know there’s risk of what we don’t know.”

If the district decided to reoccupy even part of the building, it would need to be approved by the EPA, and a PCB testing plan would need to be put in place. According to Peterson Consulting, that could cost up to $400,000 a year.

Last month, the Burlington School Board approved plans to build a new high school across the street on Institute Road.

District officials are hoping to have the new school ready by August 2025.

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