In three months, Burlington voters will head to the polls and likely vote on a nine-figure bond for a new high school and technical center. This week, Burlington School District officials released the estimated cost for the project — just over $190 million.
The estimate includes roughly $138.7 million in construction costs; $30 million in soft costs such as design fees, permits and furnishings; and $21.4 million to demolish the existing buildings and remediate toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the existing building materials and soil. A 10 percent contingency is built into the estimate to address unforeseen costs, while 8 percent has been added to construction costs to account for inflation.
Though the price tag is hefty, it’s less than the school district thought it might be in the spring. That’s because school board members voted in June to relocate four of the tech center’s “high bay” programs — those that require a large amount of space, such as automotive and manufacturing — to the airport or other off-site locations in an effort to shrink the building’s footprint and cut costs. A July 28 memo from senior project manager Joe Weith stated that three additional tech center programs would also be removed from the project: early childhood education and pre-tech — a program for ninth and tenth graders looking to explore tech center offerings — will be located off-site, while the culinary program is being discontinued, at least temporarily. That leaves just five technical center programs on the new campus.
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The district hopes to ask voters to approve a bond of up to $165 million on November 8; the final number is still being discussed, superintendent Tom Flanagan said in an interview on Wednesday. The district has identified several additional funding sources to make up the difference, including $10 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds, $10 million from a prior bond allocation and $5 million from a school district surplus.
At a Tuesday night school board meeting, Flanagan asked commissioners to consider another cost-saving measure: removing the high school’s two alternative programs — OnTop and Horizons — from the project. OnTop, a program for ninth through twelfth graders with emotional and behavioral challenges, is currently located at Rock Point School, behind Burlington High School’s Institute Road campus. Horizons, a program for nontraditional learners in eleventh and twelfth grade, occupies space at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in the New North End. Both programs serve around 30 students.
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Removing the programs would reduce the project cost by more than $5 million, Flanagan said, and they could remain at their current locations. Even if the board approves the programs’ removal, the district is still committed to looking for state and federal dollars, other outside funding opportunities, and philanthropy to support the project, Flanagan said.
Ahead of Tuesday’s school board meeting, the district shared another memo that provided preliminary budget and tax estimates associated with the high school project. With a $165 million bond — assuming a 3.5 percent interest rate for 20 years — Burlington School District’s budget would increase by around $11.6 million annually. That amounts to a tax rate increase of 15.67 percent for Burlington residents, which translates into a $805 annual property tax increase for the owner of a $370,000 home. Homeowners who get tax assistance based on income would see an increase of $190 a year.
The tax calculations come with a caveat, though. Last legislative session, the state passed a pupil-weighting bill that would provide financial benefits to districts with a high number of English language learners and students living in poverty, such as Burlington. Once that law goes into effect, in fiscal year 2025, there will likely be a reduction in the tax rate, according to the school district memo.
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The school board will meet again on Wednesday, August 10, to decide whether to remove OnTop and Horizons from the project and to vote on a final bond amount, which it will then forward to the Burlington City Council. On August 15, the council will vote on a bond resolution for the November ballot. The resolution must be sent to the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office by August 17.
If all goes according to plan, the school district hopes to begin demolition and PCB remediation by January and break ground on the new building next June, in order to complete the project by August 2025.