After more PCBs are found in Burlington High School, superintendent doubts it can be saved

Burlington High School is closed due to elevated levels of PCB’s. Seen on Tuesday, October

Burlington High School is closed due to elevated levels of PCB’s. Seen on Tuesday, October 20, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The cancer-causing chemicals in the former Burlington High School may be impossible to fix, according to Superintendent Tom Flanagan. 

Flanagan warned school board members Tuesday night that more PCBs — the cancer-causing chemicals found in the building last fall — have spread into the building’s foundation, and it may not make sense to try to save the building.

“Unfortunately, at each step of the process, we find more materials with PCBs,” Flanagan said. “And I’m growing increasingly concerned about the cost of future remediation and the ability for the remediation to reduce levels of airborne PCBs to below the state screening levels.” 

On the other hand, building a new high school would be costly, and if the current location cannot be reused for a new complex, there may be issues in finding a different site that’s suitable.

Last September, the Burlington High School and Technical Center was forced to close when unsafe levels of PCBs were found throughout the building and, in some areas, soared past state and federal limits. 

Since then, the school district has moved the roughly 1,000 students in grades 9-12 into a former Macy’s department store downtown, after the district spent $3.5 million to renovate it to house the students, staff and faculty. 

The school district has a three-year lease on the former Macy’s building. In that time, the district needs to decide whether the old building can be saved or if a new high school is needed. 

To help guide the decision, the school district has continued to test the building and the land it sits on for PCB contamination. The testing is expected to wrap up this August and cost the district $500,000. 

Flanagan said Tuesday the chemicals were first found in window caulking and had seeped into the school’s soil. Then PCBs were found in the walls, floor tiles and in the air. 

Most recently, he said, the district has found that PCBs had spread from the glue under the floor tiles into the concrete foundation of the building. 

While Flanagan did not explicitly say that Burlington will need a new high school, he told board members that remediating the PCBs may not be worth the money, given the extent of the chemicals. 

Remediation is expected to cost the district between $7 million and $12 million, Flanagan said. 

“I’m worried that even if it is possible to remediate, it might not be worth it,” he said. “I’m not convinced that it is of value to our students, staff or taxpayers to spend millions of dollars on remediation.”

‘Actually the Titanic?’

Board member Jean Waltz asked if the district needs a new school. 

“Obviously we’ve been trying to patch a sinking ship. So, what is it going to take for you guys to let us know that this is actually the Titanic?” she asked. “I guess I’m just asking, what is it going to take before it’s just clear we don’t have a choice?” 

Flanagan replied that he wanted to make it clear the district has a serious problem with its current two-option plan: remediation or build a new school.

“We need to take action sooner rather than later,” Flanagan said. 

The original timetable was to decide on remediation late this summer. Now, Flanagan will ask school board members to decide the path forward as soon as next month. 

“We’ve been doing some analysis on what a new build would look like,” Flanagan said. “We know that if we can get started sooner, in the spring, it will save us a significant amount of time.” 

There’s currently no estimate for how much a replacement to the 240,000-square-foot building would cost the city. South Burlington School District leaders wanted to build a $209 million high school and middle school complex, which would have housed about 1,500 students, before it was shot down by voters last month. Harwood Union High School in Duxbury previously considered a $30 million renovation to its building in 2019, which houses about 800 students. 

Questions swirled among board members about how much a new high school would cost and where the money would come from. Others wondered if the land was salvageable or if a different location would be needed for a new school.

Burlington has unsuccessfully tried to find a new high school location in the past, board member Martine Gulick said. 

“We can’t talk about stopping the project if we don’t know where we can go,” Gulick said. “I’m sitting here having an anxiety attack because I’m thinking, ‘Where would we go?’ And maybe you all have information that I don’t have but that scares me because we looked. And nothing came available.”

Flanagan said more facts and more discussion will ensue, and the board may enter May with “perhaps a decision or perhaps a pause.” 

“It’s no one’s fault that we’re here,” Flanagan said. “We learned about this problem through doing our due diligence. And our due diligence has led us to uncover a serious problem that we could have swept under the rug.

“But we chose to be leaders and make hard decisions.”