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A closer look at the top sites in contention to house next Burlington High School

Published: Sep. 15, 2021 at 6:09 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 16, 2021 at 6:23 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The Burlington School Board narrows the list of potential sites for a new high school to three. Our Katharine Huntley takes a closer look at the locations.

The Burlington School Board has decided to move forward and investigate the pros and cons of three potential sites for a new high school, from the original list of 12 compiled by a consultant.

Two are on Institute Road where the old school building is and the third is at the Gateway Block in downtown Burlington, which would utilize Memorial Auditorium and breathe new life into a space that has been shuttered for several years.

“We’ll choose the location that will best serve our students and is responsible to taxpayers and meets our aggressive timeline,” said Clare Wool, the chair of the Burlington School Board.

The school board hopes to put a plan before voters next March, so moved quickly to narrow the list Tuesday night.

The Institute Road sites were ranked first and second in the consultants’ report. The Memorial Auditorium site ranked eighth.

The consultants from the firm White and Burke said this site would pose a higher probability of developmental and permitting challenges including parking and other issues that come with building in a city block.

The Institute Road locations are already zoned for education and Wool says that makes those sites the front runners.

However, the school board sees positives in having students right downtown and potentially even sharing the Fletcher Free Library. But there are potential limiting factors such as overall cost and even soil issues at the site, along with concerns there could be better uses for the property.

“We are cognizant to those who have shared with us that is prime real estate and it should be used for revenue for the city and we understand that,” Wool said.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger recently sent a letter to the school board voicing a strong recommendation that they look at the gateway site further, though he realizes that there could be cost or timeline issues that would prevent the school from going downtown.

In fact, the mayor’s recently proposed capital plan includes $10 million for Memorial Auditorium. He says this could go to restoring the auditorium to its former glory, developing it into something new or working to make it part of the potential new school.

“Or to be a good partner to the school district in this dual-use concept where the facilities serve both as the gym and the auditorium for the school district and as a public assembly space much like its historic use,” said Weinberger, D-Burlington.

Former City Council president Kurt Wright says he believes the school would be best up at Institute Road where the old BHS currently sits and sees the Gateway Block as an unrealistic proposition.

“I think one of the problems here is going to be that timeline won’t be realistic with this site. I think it’s going to come with issues and problems that will make that timeline almost impossible to meet,” Wright said.

The most aggressive date they’d hope to see this on a ballot would be Town Meeting Day 2022 in the form of a bond. However, Wool says they are working as hard as possible to find any state or federal funding along with philanthropy to make sure the cost isn’t sqarely on Burlington taxpayers’ backs.

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