Burlington City Council sends $165 million high school bond to voters

Marty Spaulding of the Burlington School District leads a tour of the former Macy's department store in 2021, which currently serves as the temporary home of Burlington High School. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated Tuesday, Aug.16, at 12:08 p.m.

BURLINGTON — The Burlington City Council Monday night unanimously approved a $165 million high school construction bond that will go before voters in November.

But before councilors turned to that closely watched measure, they heard from a half-dozen city residents who used a public comment period to express anger and frustration over a police shooting in the city over the weekend.

Burlington police officer Simon Bombard, who has worked for the department for seven years, shot Manhattan Drive resident David Johnson in the leg during an encounter outside Johnson’s home on Saturday afternoon.

Three officers had responded to Johnson’s home, where they said he was wielding a knife and threatening self-harm. Vermont State Police, which is investigating the shooting, said body camera footage shows that four minutes after police arrived and tried to establish a “rapport” with Johnson, he charged officers, prompting one of them to deploy an electric weapon and Bombard to shoot his handgun.

Some residents at Monday night’s regular City Council meeting expressed skepticism that police sufficiently tried to deescalate the situation, contending police increase danger rather than mitigate it.

They also expressed concerns that two nearby parked and occupied vehicles were struck by gunfire, causing minor injuries to one occupant from shattered glass.

“When someone says I'm hurting, why do we send hyper militarized cops? Why is the response to mental illness violence?” asked Julia Macuga, who made a bid to represent Ward 3 as a Progressive last year and identified herself as a crisis de-escalator. 

Johnson, 20, was being treated for non-life-threatening injuries at the University of Vermont Medical Center, according to Vermont State Police. He’s likely to face charges related to the episode, they said.

After state police conclude their investigation, the state Attorney General’s Office and Chittenden County state’s attorney will review whether Bombard, 30, was justified in the shooting.

At the end of Monday’s meeting, Councilors Joe Magee, P-Ward 3, and Ali House, P-Ward 8, addressed the shooting, saying that police should not be the ones responding to mental health crises.

“We have to do better by our community,” Magee said. “When people are struggling with mental health crises, they should not get shot in the leg.”

School bond vote

Following the public comment period, city councilors turned their attention to the $165 million bond, approving it 12-0 after a discussion in which even some who supported the project expressed concerns about the cost.

Burlington High School closed in fall 2020 after the discovery of high levels of cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB. Students have been taking classes in the old Macy’s building downtown as school officials make plans to build a new school and tech center on Institute Road.

If passed by voters on Election Day on Nov. 8, the annual tax increase to property owners would be $871 for a property assessed at $400,000, according to a fact sheet presented to the city council Monday night. Some households’ costs would be offset by tax assistance.

At the height of borrowing over the course of the 20-year bond, the project could have a tax impact of 15.67% for those who pay based on the value of their property. 

Among those worried about the price tag was Councilor Mark Barlow, I-North District, who said he supported the project but wanted the school district to continue to work to offset the costs through other means such as grants. 

Councilor Ben Traverse, D-Ward 5, also noted that “Burlington voters are feeling increased property taxes, particularly after the most recent reassessment.” He said he had at points “questioned the extent to which our community would be able to support” the project. 

However, Traverse said, the project was important to students and families alike. 

“As a father of three future Burlington High School students who sees other school-aged families currently choosing to not live in Burlington or to leave Burlington because of our current situation with the high school, as a resident who sees families who do not have the means to make that choice having to make do with the building is not worthy of our students, I am very excited to support this project,” he said.

Christopher-Aaron Felker, chairman of the Burlington Republican Committee, also spoke to the need for a new school, but suggested the costs could drive families out of the Queen City, urging councilors to tighten their belts. 

“It’s true we can't spend too much on educating our children, but we can spend more than the taxpayers can afford; and this is more than the taxpayers can afford them,” he said.

The school board had voted unanimously last week to send the bond request to the City Council. Clare Wool, the chairwoman of the Burlington School Board, said in a statement after the vote that she was “incredibly appreciative and grateful for the unanimous support of the board and the mayor.”

“We have worked over the last several years, and especially this year, getting to this place where we were able to educate (the council) on our need and hear their concerns, and so I am humbled but ready to work and with them in partnership to get the word out to citizens so that we are successful with this valid item,” she said.

During an address to the City Council prior to the vote, Superintendent Tom Flanagan said that the school already reduced the project cost and subsequently the bond request by $45 million by using federal and school district money. The project is currently projected to cost $190 million, including the new school and remediation efforts.

Mayor Miro Weinberger previously raised concerns about the amount of the bond. He suggested it could damage the city’s credit rating and lead to higher interest rates. 

But on Monday, he spoke in support of authorizing the bond request to go before voters, saying the project would “ensure that the broader school district has the resources necessary to make this critical project possible over the next three years.”

“This is a step that we need to take for the future of our children,” he said. “And we need to do it now.”

School officials have been looking for additional funding sources and for ways to trim costs. The project is scheduled to be completed in August 2025, lining up with the end of the school district’s lease at the old department store. 

Flanagan said that the district would renew the lease with Macy’s if voters voted against the bond and the district was unable to secure enough outside funding to compensate for the project — but he cautioned that it’s not a viable option.

“At some point we have to build the high school,” he said.

The school board unanimously approved the cheaper of five schematic designs for the school. Developer Joe Weith called it the design with the best campus feel. 

Compared to the old high school, the new building would function as various small learning communities. According to Weith, there would be a variety of classroom sizes including similar rooms. 

The main entrance to the building would sit a level above on the first floor of the school and open into a large area that developers refer to as “the commons” — which Weith has referred to as “a glorified cafeteria, but it's much more than just the dining space,” also functioning as an assembly space, a lobby for the auditorium and the gym. 

“It will be a center of student activity,” he said. 

The first floor would also be the primary service level for students with disabilities. Weith highlighted that those students will be close to necessary support services and medical services. Music programs would also be on that level. 

Other components include classrooms, teacher planning areas, small group rooms, an open-floor-plan library and full-size basketball court. Flanagan said the talks with the design firm continue.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story misspelled Joe Weith's name and omitted councilors’ responses to the Aug. 13 shooting by a Burlington police officer. 

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Kori Skillman

About Kori

Kori Skillman recently earned a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, with a focus on visual craft and short documentary. She also holds degrees in journalism and international business from San Diego State University. Kori worked this year as a press intern at the New York County District Attorney’s Office.

Email: [email protected]

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