Region 4 School Board Approves $5.8M Stopgap for Aging Middle School

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

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CHESTER/DEEP RIVER/ESSEX — The Board of Education voted Wednesday to appropriate $5.8 million to fix the HVAC and dehumidification system at John Winthrop Middle School and clean up a mold outbreak that has left the 7th and 8th graders attending classes at the high school since September.

But some of the towns’ residents who spoke at a public hearing on Wednesday questioned the decision to spend $5.8 million on a solution that would represent a temporary fix rather than a long-term solution to an aging building that is too large to house an ever-shrinking population of students.

“This is a $5.8 million non-final solution. This is renovating a 50 some-odd year old building, which has moisture problems because it comes through the bricks and the windows and roof and everything else. And it’s way bigger than we need for the present student body,” said resident John Bennett. “I think the cart is before the horse to spend $5.8 million without the board figuring out the future and the needs of students.”

After architects determined in December that the mold outbreak was caused by a combination of poor insulation, windows that didn’t seal properly, water pooling on the roof and an aging HVAC system, the firm QA+M offered the board a series of options ranging from simply stripping and replacing the insulation to doing a full renovation of the middle school or even constructing an entirely new building.  

After discussions at a January meeting with Board of Finance members and Selectmen from the three towns, the Board of Education voted to fix the immediate problems at the middle school with the goal of getting the students back into the building in the fall of 2024. 

The decision was widely supported by teachers, who urged the board to approve the $5.8 million fix and get the middle schoolers back into John Winthrop as soon as possible.

Teacher Sasha Weiss-Sanford, who teaches social studies, said that the overcrowding had interrupted her ability to teach effectively. At one point, she said, she had to take her International Baccalaureate students to Town Hall to work on a project because there were no spaces available in the school.

“Seventeen of us have been taken out of our classrooms. We’ve been assigned a public area in the library. I have no privacy to call a parent. I’m forced to go out to my car to ensure confidentiality. In addition, it’s difficult to concentrate to work on lesson planning in this noisy public area. The hallways are filled with students eating, doing work, and socializing,” said Weiss-Sanford.

She added that faculty morale was low and that she’d spoken to parents who were talking about removing their children from the district.

“I hear daily of teachers looking for jobs elsewhere. I went to my doctor last week, and for my yearly check up, and she told me if the situation is not rectified, she will be sending her daughter to a private school,’ said Weiss-Sanford.

Rachel Rose, a World Languages Teacher at Valley, said that teachers were constantly moving between locations and didn’t have the tools they needed to do their jobs.

“I was one of the teachers who was displaced, and in none of the classrooms that I work in do I have the resources that I need to be successful,” said Rose. “Other people are utilizing the spaces and things are changing, the configuration is different, students … cannot get a hold of us, they can’t find us, we can’t find each other. The level of chaos, disorganization is unfathomable.”

White assured the teachers that the administration had also been discussing options for what to do if the referendum for the $5.8 million failed.

Carol Jones, first selectman of Deep River, faulted the district administration for the situation, saying that they had wasted time addressing the issue and that they had failed to hire a new facilities director, which could have raised the alarm earlier.

“This issue was brought to the forefront in the fall, the school shut down and consultants [were] hired. We’ve lost months waiting for their report and doing nothing. We have staff willing to be trained and roll up their sleeves to clean the school. We have local experts who have volunteered to clean and direct the cleanup,” said Jones. “A project with a $5.8 million price tag with $2 million going to consultants is ridiculous.” 

Others criticized the district’s failure to maintain the building, and asked how the district would maintain the building once the mold was remediated.

“None of us would take care of our house this way. Where we had this problem in the house, we do preventive maintenance to our houses,” said Bob Yedresek of Deep River.

White said the district did have maintenance staff working in the buildings, and that they had been advocating for a region-wide facilities director for three years.

Town members also brought up a $10 million bond to improve the district’s athletic fields that residents approved last year, saying that the field project should be put on hold until the district took care of the mold.

Resident Allison Sloane of Deep River, who attended Valley and sent her own daughter there, said she wouldn’t send a child to attend the high school today because of the learning conditions.

“It’s a wonderful school system, but shame on us. Because these teachers are suffering, the kids are suffering, and we need a better contingency plan soon,” she said. “You’re going to send these people back into a place where you can’t tell us that there’s not going to be mold. The masonry is chipping away. The moldings for the windows are rotting. And unless we spend a whole lot more money on a huge building, it’s not going to be safe.”

Several attendees agreed that the district should throw its resources behind either fully renovating John Winthrop or buying a new building. A few asked whether bringing in portable classrooms could be a viable option while the district undertook longer-term renovations. Kelly Nelli, a senior project manager at Arcadis, the district’s project manager, said four portable classrooms would cost about half a million dollars for 10 months. And Superintendent Brian White said the middle school would need more than four portables.

“You would be talking about a solution that would be into the millions,” said White.

But the project managers at Arcadis explained that the district’s declining enrollment presented another problem — because John Winthrop was three times the size it needed to be for the number of students attending, the state of Connecticut would not reimburse the district for renovations to the building. They would receive reimbursement if the towns voted to build a new, smaller school, but would probably lose many of the amenities that John Winthrop had.

A few town residents brought up the idea of consolidation as a possible solution to the oversized building, suggesting the possibility of moving lower grades up to the middle school and then consolidating the elementary schools. And at an earlier meeting, Board member John Stack proposed that the district consider building out Valley Regional High School and convert it into a 7-12 school. 

White acknowledged that John Winthrop was not the only facility that was in need of maintenance in the district, and that the Board of Education and town officials would need to work on a long-range plan.

“We know that in the next five to ten years or less, we’re going to be having conversations about each of our existing facilities requiring a significant amount of work,” said White.

Board members Lon Seidman and John Stack both said they believed the temporary fix was the best option for right now. Seidman said he was encouraged by the fact that in the fall, when the temperature cooled and the heat kicked in, the building essentially dried itself out.

“I think this is going to fix this problem. We’re going to be able to get the kids back in the building, eliminate these disruptions, have some work done that will benefit us in the future,” said Seidman.

In the end, he said, it was a balancing act between what needed to be done to fix the building, and what the taxpayers would support at a referendum.

“With this plan, we’re not throwing money away. We are putting things into the building that will be useful later. Does it fix everything? No. But the problem is that as we were looking at all the different options, the reimbursement rate, because of the enrollment in the school, is just nonexistent. So, if you were to spend 30 million dollars, that’s all on you,” he said.

Stack warned against thinking that portables could be a “panacea,” saying that they would just represent a “sunk cost” to the towns. He said that the Board originally thought having the students at Valley would buy them time to address the bigger regionalization issue, but that it became clear that the situation was untenable.

“What has happened over the period of time, and we’ve heard it from people in the audience, we have seen this constant deterioration of both teachers and students throughout the year. And as a school board, I have to tell you, that is the number one thing we have to think about,” said Stack.

Stack added that he believed John Winthrop was “worth saving.”

“I don’t think you’re going to find anybody up here who does not believe regionalization is a good idea, but there are ways of filling [John Winthrop] back up. You would be giving up a great school with great facilities by just saying let’s trash it and build another school,” said Stack.

A few attendees agreed that the plan could work if the building was properly maintained after the insulation and HVAC problems were fixed. Dwayne Gates, a former board member from Deep River, agreed with Stack.

“I don’t want to throw away $5.8 million dollars, but we have to get our teachers what they need. We have excellent teachers here,” said Gates. “But we have to look at the long term also. This is short term — to get the children back to where they belong — but we have to think of the long term.”

The referendum is scheduled for March 26. 


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.

e.otte@ctexaminer.com