Uncertainty surrounds plan to pay for new Burlington high school

The school district is hoping a $150 million bond will fund a significant portion of the high school project but city officials have expressed concerns about borrowing too much money. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Concerns about the plan to pay for a $210 million high school and technical center have Burlington officials scrambling to come up with new funding ideas.

“We are at a really important juncture and will need to collaborate to make a decision soon about our direction forward on this complex and critical project,” Superintendent Tom Flanagan told school board members Tuesday.

The school district is hoping a $150 million bond will fund a significant portion of the project, but city officials have expressed concerns about borrowing too much money. Mayor Miro Weinberger’s spokesperson, Dan McLean, emphasized that the amount of the bond has not yet been agreed upon.  

Even if city officials sign off on the full bond request — and Burlington voters approve it — the school district will still need to find at least an additional $35 million to cover remaining costs. 

Burlington High School was closed after cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, levels were found to be too high in the fall of 2020. Students have been attending classes inside a remodeled downtown department store since. The district hopes to open the new school in fall 2025. 

A joint debt policy established in 2018 guides borrowing decisions for the city and school district. The mayor and city council must approve the school district’s bond request before putting it to voters in November. Municipal funds cannot be used for educational purposes by state law. 

McLean said it will be “a major challenge” to pay for the project while adhering to the city’s debt policy. He noted in an email Wednesday that “borrowing too much could threaten the City’s credit rating and result in a higher bonding interest rate for this project — and all other municipal and BSD borrowing.”

Flanagan acknowledged these reservations. “We know that the $150 million is not set in stone and we are trying to figure out what is best for our students, school, and city, while also being cognizant of the city’s concerns about the debt policy,” he said.

The superintendent’s presentation Tuesday outlined a potential $175 million in revenues, including the bond. It pointed to $10 million from the 2017 capital plan, $10 million in federal school emergency relief funds and $5 million in district surplus over the next five years, of which $1.5 million is already approved. 

That still would leave the school district on the hook for another $35 million.

Flanagan also suggested relocating part of the Burlington Technical Center to the future Aviation Education Center at the airport. If approved, this could bring the total cost of the project down to $190 million, he said.

McLean said that the mayor supports building a new technical center “but does not believe the cost of this regional facility should be borne entirely by Burlington taxpayers,” noting that many of the students hail from surrounding towns. 

The school board went into executive session Tuesday night to discuss options.

At an April meeting, the school board chose an estimated $181.3 million conceptual design for a new Burlington High and technical center school complex — the least expensive of the options presented. Schematic designs will be provided at a public forum on June 29, according to the latest timeline. 

Before building a new school, however, the district must remediate and remove the toxic chemicals, which is estimated to cost $29 million. Flanagan suggested that Burlington might be able to secure a portion of the $22 million designated by the Legislature for PCB remediation in fiscal year 2022. 

“There are no other specific funding options that have come to fruition aside from that,” he said. “And timing is key because we need to remediate and remove at the beginning of this project.”

The district has hired Leonine Public Affairs as a consultant for $20,000 to develop and implement a fundraising strategy to secure private and public funding for the construction, Flanagan said.

City and school officials have been meeting regularly in recent weeks, McLean noted, but major issues remain. The parties must agree on a bond amount by mid-August in order to put the question on the November ballot.

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Auditi Guha

About Auditi

Auditi is Chittenden County editor at VTDigger. Originally from Calcutta, India, she graduated from Emerson College with an MA in journalism. She has worked as an editor and reporter for several newspapers, and in various beats. Most recently, she covered race and justice at Rewire.News, and higher education at the New Bedford Standard-Times. She previously worked at several Massachusetts newsrooms. She is a mentor for young reporters through the Report For America program, founded the Boston chapter of the South Asian Journalists Association, and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.


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