Education

Burlington School District scales down high school renovations

Burlington High School. Photo by Alexandre Silberman/VTDigger

The Burlington School District has made cuts to a high school renovation project after the price tag for the initial plans came in more than $20 million over budget

Voters overwhelmingly approved a $70 million high school overhaul in November 2018 that would address deferred maintenance and accessibility issues, safety concerns and provide an overall upgrade to the facility built in 1964.

The new plan eliminates the Galleria for the entrance to the school, construction of an auxiliary gym, and the renovation of the current gym’s floor. Some renovations to the building where the Burlington Technical Center is located have also been nixed. 

The Board of Finance unanimously approved the schematic design and financing in late April after Clare Wool, the school board’s chair, and Tom Peterson, a consultant working with the district, discussed the project. 

Wool said in an interview Thursday that the cost overruns were unforeseen. She said they were caused in part by the discovery of asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCBs, on the property. The costs of stormwater work and ADA accessibility work were also higher than anticipated, she said. 

Since August, the district has worked to cut the costs of the project to about $73 million

First, the district limited expenditures significantly by replacing some planned new construction with renovations. For example, the plan no longer includes the demolition of D building or wrap-around construction of A building, Peterson said.  

Wool said the district saved $5 million by eliminating exterior and window renovations to one building, $2 million on removing the auxiliary gym and $1.2 million on removing the Galleria. 

“Aesthetically, we didn’t have the height of the windows, but that didn’t include programming,” she said. “Some of these things that were architectural accents, we had to remove.”  

Building F, where the tech center is located, will still undergo interior renovations, Wool said. 

The revamped project addresses the three major areas it was aiming to improve: accessibility, security and efficiency.

“It is unacceptable to not address these current concerns at the high school,” she said. “The roofs leak, it’s dangerous…. This has been a building that is crying out for renovation.” 

The district has also had to revise its timeline for the project as the schematic design phase took longer than anticipated because of the budget costs. 

“We’ve done our homework, we worked incredibly hard and didn’t rush through anything, and wanted to present a very real picture to taxpayers on what they are getting based on current prices and current conditions,” Wool said. 

Wool said work on the project was moving forward despite the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Taxpayers want to invest, even with Covid and everything… we always need a high school, our enrollment is strong,” she said.

The district is now aiming to start construction in July 2021 and finish construction in September 2024. The district will resume the permitting process this summer and begin the bidding phase next summer, according to the updated schedule. 

Design plans for renovations at Burlington High School.

This summer, the district had hoped to get started on a couple of projects, including repairs to student parking and replacing the school’s bleachers. But the coronavirus has called some of that work into question, Wool said. 

“There’s nothing that concerns the timeline that if we can’t get it done, it won’t set us back even more,” Wool said. “We will make good use of that time, but if we are unable to due to Covid, then we are prepared for that.”  

To cover the gap between the bond and current cost of the project, the district is planning on using $1.1 million from its lease of the Taft School to the University of Vermont, $500,000 from the district’s existing capital plan and $2 million from existing one-time funds. 

For example, the district could remove the cost of new kitchen equipment from the plan and instead use surplus Food Service funds to cover those costs. Other examples of these existing one-time funds include monies left over from previous construction, and other existing funds. 

The district also is requesting the city waive 100% of its zoning permit fees, which would be $400,000 for the project. 

The Board of Finance decided to table the decision on waiving those fees. Mayor Miro Weinberger said that the city had to review the costs it would incur in the permitting process before reaching a conclusion on the district’s request. 

Weinberger said the city had not waived permitting fees on any projects during his tenure as mayor. The Board of Finance will revisit the issue after the administration completes its review. 

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Aidan Quigley

About Aidan

Aidan Quigley is VTDigger's Burlington and Chittenden County reporter. He most recently was a business intern at the Dallas Morning News and has also interned for Newsweek, Politico, the Christian Science Monitor and the Republican-American newspaper in Waterbury, Connecticut. He is a 2018 graduate of Ithaca College, where he served as the editor-in-chief of The Ithacan, the student newspaper. He is a native of Trumbull, Connecticut.

Email: [email protected]

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