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Roof, floor at Meadowbrook vexes board

January 20, 2011

The town council will meet at the end of January to discuss solutions - and costs.

While a technology upgrade to East Greenwich High School received the School Committee’s blessing last night, the Meadowbrook Farms Elementary School question continues to hang over the heads of school officials.
As a Jan. 31 joint meeting with the Town Council looms ahead, the school board opted not to vote Tuesday night on a $3.9 million overhaul of Meadowbrook as it awaits a more detailed report from engineering firm Simpson Gumpertz & Hager and architecture firm SMMA on flooring, roofing and HVAC concerns.

As a result, the committee may not have a recommendation to offer the council at the Jan. 31 meeting, in which the council will consider the technology recommendation and a previous $1.9 million recommendation for repairs to the high school and Frenchtown School roofs. The money for those requests would come from an estimated $6.3 million in savings on the town’s $52 million school bond, approved by local voters in 2008.
School Committee Chair-woman Deidre Gifford indicated a vote could be taken Thursday night at one of two budget workshop sessions scheduled next week, but wasn’t certain the consultants’ report would be ready by then.
“There will be language that addresses the situation,” she said of next week’s possible vote.
Committee members appeared to arrive at a consensus that roof work, for which $1 million has already been allocated in the bond, would be in the cards at Meadowbrook, along with HVAC work to resolve humidity and air circulation problems in the school.
A large group of Meadowbrook parents who turned out for the meeting would have to wait at least another week for a resolution, though, when the question of whether a complete reflooring, possibly including asbestos removal, evaded an answer.
The board voted 6-1, with Paul Martin dissenting, to recommend the council approve Superintendent Victor Mercurio’s plan to upgrade computer systems and Internet access at the high school, where their capabilities are well below the newly installed equipment at the new Cole Middle School, scheduled to open in April. The motion called for the cost of the upgrade not to exceed $665,000.
A proposed $500,000 upgrade of the library and lighting at the high school did not come up for a vote.
Several parents who addressed the committee expressed their fears about safety at Meadowbrook, citing damage to floor tiles, reports of mold in the school library, and concerns about air quality.
An annual budget item of $20,000 to fix disintegrating floor tiles at the school was not enough for some parents who heard Simpson Gumpertz & Hager engineer Paul Scheiner’s presentation on the building’s problems last week before a joint meeting of the School Committee and School Building Advisory Committee. The advisory panel voted 6-4 to recommend the full $3.9 million repair work to the school board.
Tony and Kristin Wheeler both voiced their misgivings with anything less than a full repair, which Scheiner said could extend the school’s functional life “indefinitely.”
Quoting Albert Einstein, Tony Wheeler said, “It’s insanity to do the same thing over and over and expect the same result. The approach of patch fixes will increase costs year after year, and it’s just a matter of time until we have a catastrophic event.”
Kristin Wheeler, who said she learned about mold in the library after volunteering there, wanted nothing less than the full fix.
“I feel safety and health issues should come before other things. We have the money. Fix it now,” she said.
David Gecawich said Scheiner’s study of the school was more comprehensive than any undertaken when the floor there was last repaired in 2001.
“I was very impressed with the engineering study, and I’m not sure we have people in this room that are qualified to come up with an alternate fix,” he said.
“There was no advisory committee (in 2001),” added Martin. “We never went after good advice and paid for it.”
School Committee member Mary Ellen Winters, also a member of the building committee along with Vice Chairman Robert Durant, said Meadowbrook’s floor had been addressed on several occasions since the school was built in 1968. She remained puzzled about water vapor that had seeped through the concrete pad, asbestos and barrier into the floor tiles.
“They dug down multiple places around the building and they didn’t even hit the water table,” said Winters, citing Scheiner’s study of the building from November 2009 until June 2010. “We still have a lot of questions.”
Gifford said there have been no reports of air quality problems in the school, and no safety problems with asbestos.
“The asbestos in the floor poses no safety hazard, and is completely contained and covered. We have no evidence of increased health problems in Meadowbrook in students or faculty,” she said.
The comprehensive fix, which would involve asbestos removal, could create complications with school operations, said Gifford, adding removal could be completed during the summer but would leave the floor work incomplete by the time class began in the fall.
“We need to do our due diligence. There’s no guarantee that if we spend this money, it will work,” said Durant.

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