CHESTER/DEEP RIVER/ESSEX — Seventh and eighth graders will not be able to return to their school building until September at the earliest.
That is, if the students return at all.
The middle schoolers have been attending classes at Valley Regional High School since September, when mold was discovered at John Winthrop Middle School. Subsequent testing found mold throughout the building.
In November, Superintendent Brian White told the Board of Education that he hoped to have the middle schoolers back at John Winthrop in January. But Jack Butkus of Arcadis, the town’s project manager, warned that when the students could go back would be dependent on findings from the architecture firm QA + M, which was hired to do an analysis to find out the root cause of the mold.
At a meeting on Thursday, QA + M analysts presented a multitude of options for how the district could go forward with reopening the building. The proposals ranged from simply ripping out and replacing insulation around the building pipes — which, Vice President of RZ Design Associates Kenneth Hipsky explained, were covered with mold — to renovating the entire building.
Simply replacing the insulation would cost the district about $4.5 million, and have the students back in the building by next September. But the architects warned that the insulation wasn’t the only cause of the mold. They said the windows in the building didn’t seal properly and were letting in air and moisture, that water was pooling in sloped areas of the roof, and the HVAC system was nearing the end of its useful life.
“The system is not able to handle the dehumidification in that building,” Rusty Malik, a principal at QA + M, told the Board. “You’ve got unit ventilators that air is coming through … You’ve got all these windows that are leaking, that are not airtight, basically. And you’ve got lots of failures of the masonry.”
Fixing each of these things, the architects explained, would increase the cost to the district and further delay the time when the students could reoccupy the building.
The highest cost — replacing the insulation, windows, roof and HVAC system and bringing the building up to code — would equal about $56.5 million, and keep the students out of the building until August 2026.
Malik and Butkus warned that any option that didn’t include a wholesale replacement of insulation, windows, roof and HVAC system would only serve as a temporary fix.
“Your short-term and intermediate plans are essentially putting your newspaper in the bottom of the birdcage, but then putting the birds back in,” said Butkus. “Is it going to get dirty again? Yes. Will it be six months or will it be six years? We can’t tell at this point.”
And if the district decided to renovate, Butkus explained, it was unlikely that the State of Connecticut would give the district anything in reimbursement. This is because John Winthrop Middle School, which has seen an overall decline in enrollment over the last decade, currently has about three times the amount of space per student that the state would recommend.
But board member John Stack suggested an alternative option — moving the middle schoolers to Valley Regional High School permanently and expanding the building to create a 7-12 school.
“At least in my mind, [this option] solves two problems, because remember, this facility is underloaded,” said Stack. “And so at least from a long term point of view, you’re going in the right direction. You are right sizing. At least grades 7 through 12 will be right-sized.”
Butkus said that turning Valley Regional into a 7-12 school might garner state reimbursement, and it would have the luxury of an auditorium, which is not standard in most middle schools. He estimated the cost at between $26 and $30 million — less than renovating John Winthrop.
Several Board members said they were interested in Stack’s idea. Others suggested the possibility of moving 5th and 6th graders to John Winthrop, increasing the number of students in order to reach the state’s standards for space. But in Region 4, which serves students from three different towns, moving grade levels would be complex.
And board member Richard Strauss said that taking students from Chester Elementary School could jeopardize state reimbursement Chester might receive as it tries to complete $25 million of work on its school building.
Board member Rick Daniels said he felt that any option meant to patch the school temporarily would risk putting the students and teachers back in the same position. He said replacing the roof, windows, insulation and HVAC — estimated to cost $37.5 million and place the students back in the building in August 2026.
“God forbid we have to evacuate the school again,” said Daniels. “I don’t like it. I don’t like being in [the building] at 26. But we can’t put the kids and the staff in that situation to try and get in a few months earlier. It’s penny wise and pound foolish, and it just makes me sick to look at the numbers and to think we’re in this position. It’s kind of like the perfect storm.”
But Chair Kate Sandmann and Board Member Lon Seidman said that immediately replacing the insulation or the windows could get the students back into the building quickly, while buying the towns some time to decide what they wanted to do over the long-term.
“It’s going to take time to bring everybody around a path so we can get something done. And in the meantime, if I’m a staff member or a teacher or somebody receiving this information, I’m going to feel like the floor just went out from under me,” said Sandmann. “Maybe it’s not so unreasonable to try to hold and patch for a little while and come around something that we really can agree on — because getting this right is important, and not getting it right will have a cost.”
Stack said that choosing one of the temporary solutions would just cost residents more money in the long run.
“We’re going to tell the taxpayers we’re going to spend all of this money and then potentially go back and say, ‘Well, that was a temporary solution, now we got to spend all this more money.’ And the difference between the two solutions was 12 months,” he said.
He added that the enrollment problem, and how to handle the three elementary schools, was something the towns had been putting off dealing with for years.
“Maybe this is the impetus for the towns to actually get together and solve this problem. Because they’ve been playing kick the can with this for years. Maybe this is the fire that gets the towns to a point where — listen, we’re out of time. We’ve been warning you this is coming. We’ve been saying this for years and years and years.”
Board Member Lol Fearon said he liked the idea of creating a 7-12 building because it would give the middle schoolers access to amenities they otherwise might not have — labs, a gymnasium and a performance space. But he also noted that something needed to be done immediately to address the lack of space at Valley.
“A couple of office portables are not going to do it,” said Fearon.
Board Member Jane Cavenaugh said the decision about what to do at John Winthrop needed to take place in the context of a larger discussion about the future of education in the towns.
“Do we want a robust middle school? Do we not want a robust middle school? Do you want a five to eight? We really have some conversations to really look at what makes sense for the Elementary schools too, and the preschool, and how we spend our money.”
District Superintendent Brian White said he was planning a joint faculty meeting on Friday and creating a teacher and administrative committee to look at what they would need to continue to house the middle schoolers at the high school next year.
“The current arrangement, in many ways, occurred almost overnight. And so, what’s been in place here has been less than ideal, but it’s the best we could do at the time that this occurred,” said White. “I do think that, with the benefit of time … we could really plan, based on the current experience, a much better solution for next year.”
Board members discussed the possibility of holding a referendum as early as March, but also questioned whether this would give town residents enough time to study the options and make a thoughtful decision.
The district has so far spent or encumbered about $425,000 for expenses from the middle school, including payment to attorneys, the project manager, hiring QA+M architects to perform a root cause analysis and getting a building permit from the town so that the town could set up the portable office space.
White told the board that the district had taken the money from funded positions that had been left vacant and from funds set aside to pay for the middle school security project. He said the district had frozen the budget when the mold was discovered.
The board also voted to accept a bid for about $67,000 from the Bloomfield-based company SERVPRO to begin removing items from the middle school and cleaning them. The company will begin the cleaning process on January 9.
The board is holding a special meeting to continue their discussion of options on Wed, Jan 10 at 12 p.m. The meeting will be hybrid.