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School committee wants to spend surplus on Meadowbrook

January 17, 2011

The town council will be considering the school committee's proposal.

The School Building Committee, by less than a clear consensus Tuesday night, recommended that the School Committee spend $4 million in school bond funding on comprehensive roof, floor and ventilation repairs at Meadowbrook Farms Elementary School.

Whether the School Committee will go along with that recommendation when it votes next Tuesday is even less clear.
At a joint meeting of the two committees, also attended by three Town Council members and concerned Meadowbrook Farms parents, in the East Greenwich High School library, the building panel voted 6-4 on a large fix suggested by Paul Schreiner, an engineer with Simpson Gumpertz Heger, a consulting firm on the $52 million school bond approved by the town’s voters in 2008.
Most School Committee members, however, were reluctant to endorse the building panel’s recommendation, and felt other needs may merit priority over a complete makeover at the 41-year-old Meadowbrook building.
School Committee Chairwoman Deidre Gifford said she needs to consider the project’s cost in context with other district needs, including technology needs and library renovations at the high school, before determining how to spend more of the estimated $6.2 million surplus from the bond.
“I feel we have the information we need on Meadowbrook, but we need to put this all together,” she said.
The building committee had been struggling for months to find consensus on what to do about Meadowbrook, said chairman Jay Gowell, who voted to support the $4 million project after problems sprang up with reflooring done at the school eight years ago.
“We thought the problem was fixed, but the fix didn’t work. There’s natural skepticism that this will be different, but we’ve heard from the experts,” he said.
The building panel opted for the complete renovation over a piecemeal alternative which would’ve fixed Meadowbrook’s roof, for which $1 million was included in the original bond proposal, and ventilation concerns while maintaining a $15,000-$20,000 annual budget item to replace vinyl ceramic floor tiles.
Schreiner and Jonathan Winokur, school bond construction manager, said the comprehensive fix will extend the life of the school and should be viable for at least 20 years.
After the School Committee votes on recommendations next week, they will come before the council at a joint meeting Jan. 31.
Council members attending the meeting were split, with President Michael B. Isaacs questioning use of bond surplus for additional school items and Vice President Henry J. Boezi, also a building committee member, voting in favor of the $4 million plan.
“We’re putting a lot of pressure on our tax rate. If there opportunities to save money, I’d rather take advantage of them,” said Isaacs, who had a heated debate with Gowell after the meeting in which he questioned why $2 million worth of roof work at the high school and Frenchtown Elementary School, already recommended by the School Committee, was not included in the bond proposal put before the voters. Gowell maintained that work, to be paid for from bond surplus, had been included in its previous bond proposals rejected by the council before arriving at the $52 million figure.
Boezi said the complete renovation would be an effective use of surplus money.
“There’s no compromise to whatever those kids are going to be breathing at that school,” he said.
Councilman Mark Gee praised the building committee’s presentation, but stopped short of recommending the plan.
“Unfortunately, in the world we live in we’ve got a bigger picture to look at. In the next two or three years, the impact of the bond will hit us,” he said.
Problems with the flooring at Meadowbrook surfaced over the past year, when water vapor seepage from the soil beneath the school caused floor tile damage and roofing and ventilation problems created what Winokur called “negative pressure,” with humid air from outdoors being drawn into the school.
The building problems prompted talk of closing the building, but an enrollment study commissioned by the district determined the student population could not be accommodated without a new school being built to replace Meadowbrook.
Schreiner said his recommendations would include replacement of the vented floor system, which would include asbestos removal; repairing leaks and closing vents in the roof; and installing conventional flooring.
His studies of the building from November 2009 through June 2010 determined that the flooring was holding moisture well above acceptable industry standards and that relative humidity was more than 90 percent through the building, far above the accepted humidity of below 75 percent.
Based on SGH’s experiences with similar work in an estimated 100 buildings around the United States, said Schreiner, the work would extend the expected life of the building.
“It would be indefinite,” he said.
School Committee members had just as much trouble reaching a consensus on the plan as their building committee colleagues.
Paul Martin said he would vote based on the building panel’s recommendation, but admitted, “I don’t know whether this is going to be the end of this.”
Mary Ellen Winters questioned the wisdom of sinking millions more into Meadowbrook’s floor. “We put a lot of money into the floor eight years ago and were told that was going to fix it,” she said.
Vice Chairman Robert Durant said as long as air quality studies at the school failed to find problems, he would prefer a piecemeal approach.
“My inclination is to fix the roof, balance the air and see how that works, then address some of the other issues around town,” he said.
The two committees also heard a presentation from Supt. Victor Mercurio on $665,000 in technology improvements at the high school to bring it up to par with technological capabilities at the new Cole Middle School building, scheduled for an April opening.
The biggest concern, he said, was the slow speed of Internet access.
“What should be a fire hose is more like a garden hose, or a straw,” he said of the need to address wire capacity and enhance wireless capacity for laptop computers.
The technology proposal and $500,000 in library improvements are other possible uses the School Committee is investigating for the bond surplus, the result of lower-than-expected construction bids and increased state reimbursement.

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