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Burlington district votes to lease Macy’s for BHS students

Published: Nov. 17, 2020 at 5:53 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 18, 2020 at 11:37 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The Burlington School District is inching closer to moving Burlington High School students into the former Macy’s building downtown after PCB contamination shut down most of the campus in September.

On Tuesday night, the board voted in favor of a lease agreement for the space, but it’s not a done deal just yet. The board is waiting for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation to do soil contamination testing to see if the building is safe to be used. Testing is set to begin next week with results coming back in early December. An all-clear on testing would get students another step closer to in-person learning in the second semester.

The district is hoping to have students in the building by the end of February. Board members say they hear and understand the community’s desire to return to in-person learning next semester.

“In-person learning is very important. It needs to happen as soon as possible," said Stephen Carey, a school board member. "It seems like the Macy’s option is the one that provides that best. I’m excited about the potential for a dynamic downtown high school that’s connected to the city in the way that none of our schools are connected to the city right now.”

District officials spent weeks assessing the drawbacks of moving into Macy’s. There are no windows, the walls are not full ceiling height and there’s no full-sized gym.

Superintendent Tom Flanagan says students will be allowed to travel back to Burlington High school to use the gym there.

“We are going to be using the gym for winter sports,” he said. "The Department of Health and the EPA have told us we are safe to use.”

Flanagan says the school district is also committed to creating spaces inside Macy’s to accommodate music and art classes.

“Even though the walls do not go to the ceiling, there are some rooms on the second floor in the back where the walls could go to the ceilings, so there are spaces where music can happen without it being broadcast throughout the campus," Flanagan said.

This plan is for the long term. In the short term, the school district was hoping to send high schoolers to the University of Vermont’s campus during the holidays while college students were away on break. But the university says the risk is too great, as hundreds of college students and staff will still be on campus and COVID cases continue to rise.

“So we will continue in the short term with utilizing Edmunds on Wednesdays as in-person learning for our BHS students,” Flanagan said.

BHS students will return to the classroom Monday and Tuesday of next week at the Edmunds complex. Starting the following week, they’ll have in-person classes there on Wednesdays only until Macy’s is complete.

The district is looking at leasing the former mall for the next three-and-a-half years, but they will need millions in state and federal funding to help pay for the plan. They’ve offered to rent the property for $8 per square foot. That means they’ll pay about $1.2 million for the 150,000-square-foot building, plus the cost of utilities, taxes, insurance and maintenance over the course of the 3.5 years. They’re looking at a total cost of $10 million.

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