Region 4 School Board Votes to Fix Immediate Issues at Middle School Building, Aiming for September Return

John Winthrop Middle School in Deep River (CT Examiner).


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CHESTER/DEEP RIVER/ESSEX — The consensus between Board of Education members, town leaders and community members is clear: Get John Winthrop Middle School students back into the building, and do it fast. 

The school board voted Tuesday to address immediate problems at the building — cleaning up the mold, reinsulating pipes and making limited repairs to the HVAC system — with the goal of having the students return by September. 

Board member John Stack said tackling the mold and pipe problems first would buy the group time to address the larger issue of decreased enrollment across the three towns. 

“I think we are probably putting that building in better condition than it has been for, let’s say, the last 10 years. Because we’re watching it. We’re hypersensitive to it. And I think from a safety point of view, what we do is we buy ourselves a few years so that the leaders of these towns can get together and start to solve some of these bigger picture issues,” Stack said. 

Earlier in the month, the architecture firm QA + M presented the board with their analysis findings on the factors contributing to the mold buildup in the school. They also offered the board a series of options, which ranged from stripping the insulation to renovating the building completely — which would include replacing insulation, windows, roof and the HVAC system, and bringing the building up to code. 

At that meeting, board members also discussed the possibility of expanding Valley Regional High School and turning it into a 7-12 school. Jack Butkus of Arcadis, the town’s project manager, informed the board that the renovation of John Winthrop would not qualify for state reimbursement due to the existing size of the building, which exceeds three times the per-student floor space recommended by the state for a middle school.

“The key problem here is the reimbursement rate,” board member Lon Seidman said. “We don’t have enough kids in the building.”

Seidman noted that opting for a building renovation would result in a reimbursement rate of only 12 to 14 percent; if the building were appropriately sized based on student population, the reimbursement rate could be nearly 50 percent. However, he acknowledged that reconfiguring the building would be disruptive and require that students stay out of the buildings for multiple years. 

“No matter what you do, if we don’t fix the building now, the building gets worse,” Seidman said. “[John Winthrop] is relatively in good shape, all things considered. The air quality is actually very good in the building, besides the moisture in the wall.” 

QA + M estimated the cost of mold cleanup, insulation and basic HVAC repairs at $4.5 million, although Kelly Nelli, a senior project manager at Arcadis, said the only number they were certain of was the mold remediation, at $900,000. 

The majority of Board of Education members and town leaders advocated moving toward a quicker solution, and then looking at what should be done long-term. 

Essex Selectman Stacia Libby underscored the need to get the middle schoolers back into a stable environment after having been disrupted first by COVID, and now by mold. 

“They’ve already been through so much, and I know that they’re already struggling. I hear it from the parents all the time. Just go on social media for five minutes — these kids are struggling,” Libby said. “We need to move forward. We absolutely need to move forward.”

She also said teachers have expressed “discontent” about their ability to provide students with the best learning environment. 

Denise Dalton, a library media specialist at Valley, warned that the challenges of teaching in an overcrowded environment could push teachers to leave the district. 

“This week marks 90 days that John Winthrop has been here at Valley Regional. That’s 90 days of teachers on carts, moving from three, four, five, sometimes even six classes in a five-minute passing period. That is 90 days of teachers with limited prep space,” Dalton said. “I urge you to take the steps to solve the smaller problem first before we solve the bigger problem.” 

Essex First Selectman Norm Needleman suggested installing an energy management system that would measure humidity. He said the work to remediate the mold and fix the insulation could be done in a few months. 

“We’re dithering. And as we dither, what’s going to happen is we’re going to lose population in an already challenged school,” Needleman said. 

Chester Board of Finance member John O’Hare suggested taking the $10 million the town bonded for the athletic fields and repurposing it toward remediating John Winthrop. Deep River Board of Selectmen member Wayne Gates agreed.

“Not that I want to push the fields off, because we need fields also, but there’s only so many pennies that we all have and we have to use it wisely. We have to push the fields off and use that bonding money to get this $5 million dollar fix going, get the children back in class,” Gates said. 

But Butkus warned that fixing only the immediate problem and getting the students back quickly could cause problems for the district down the road. 

“That mindset can be problematic from the standpoint that we have a building code and a fire code that say a building is supposed to have certain features, and we can’t undo just because we don’t want to spend money for it because of this immediate need,” he said. 

He also clarified that town leaders would need to persuade residents to approve any repairs or changes they chose to make at the schools, noting that a considerable amount of money would be  needed regardless of the decision. 

“There really isn’t a cheap and quick fix. We can expedite a solution to provide space back for the middle school operation, but it’s not something that you can do with just your pocket change. Anything that you do is going to be of significant cost, requiring a referendum,” Butkus said. 

School board Chair Kate Sandmann said, although the solution was imperfect, the town could handle two separate referendums if necessary.

“We’re looking to work together to a solution. That’s really what we’re hoping to get to here,” she said. 

Chester First Selectman Cindy Lignar said the towns could get the students back into John Winthrop next year, but emphasized the need for careful consideration when approaching broader changes to the school system.

“How long do we keep pushing out projects that will become more expensive over the years? And how much more can we ask of our taxpayers?” she asked. “If our student populations are decreasing, what does that mean for long-term planning? I know we’re all thinking about the same thing and all concerned about the same thing. 

She added that any changes the school districts made should be balanced with the towns’ infrastructure needs.

“How much more can we take on? And is it better to then maybe consolidate them into one campus? I don’t know in the long term, but it might cost less,” she said. “And maybe because we’re such a strong community with educators, with the Region 4 board, we can make that all work.”

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.