WHITMAN — Wear and tear, despite extensive efforts at maintaining and extending life of vehicles, equipment and facilities, has led to the School Department to make a half-dozen capital requests on the town’s Town Meeting warrant.
“When the report you see says, ‘potential fatality,’ it’s something that concerns me greatly,” Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak said of Article W-1, involving a combined $700,000 for playground safety issues at Duval School in particular. “Is it still serviceable? Yes. Has Ernie [Facilities Director Ernest Sandland] and our facilities group done a great job to make sure it’s safe? Yes, but it’s deteriorating by the day and, come next September, it would be outstanding if we could open up a new school year, post-COVID, with something for the children of Duval.”
Another playgroud at Conley School is in need of repairs and upgrades to make it handicap-accessible.
Szymaniak and Sandland met with the committee on Thursday, March 17 to review the district’s capital projects for the Town Meeting warrant.
Szymaniak said he had a “very good” meeting the previous day with Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman and state Rep Alyson Sullivan, R-Abington, to obtain at least an earmark in the state budget for playground projects at both the Duval and Conley schools.
“I’m really focused in on the Duval one, because it’s end-of-life and potentially dangerous,” he said, noting he would send Sullivan the same information he was reviewing with the committee, as she works to obtain state funding to help with it. “But our priority right now is with our capital items, is to really focus in on those playgrounds.”
A consultant — Playground Consultants of New England — has looked at the Duval playground twice, in 2020 and 2021, for an in-depth study the district had asked for to determine what was going on there in light of increasing complaints from the school nurse that children were getting hurt on the equipment.
“We had it inspected,” Sandland said. “When we have something like that done by an outside consultant, or an outside firm, we take their recommendations and put them in work orders.”
Problems seen at Conley, Duval and Indian Head schools had been addressed through work orders, then the consultant was asked out again to determine if there was something they missed or that needed correction, Sandland explained.
“When it came to the Duval School, they were just repeating themselves, because it’s at the end of useful life,” he said. “The issues that were there before have been resolved, but we have new issues at Duval School.”
Old construction techniques not used anymore, calling for the use of non-galvanized steel pipe wrapped in plastic for support structures, have begun to rot at the base up from the foundation.
“You don’t see it, because the plastic it looks great,” Sandland said. “But at stair steps, the leaping frogs that would just break off because the metal — the steel — would start to rust below ground and they would break off without any warning.”
Playground mulch is another issue.
Orders have to be timed right so it can be leveled off before the start of school — a major safety issue.
“Conley’s a little bit different,” Sandland said. “There’s some work there that can be done to save that playground.”
But the interior playground, relocated from the old Park Avenue School has to be removed.
At Indian Head, problems were resolve with a new playground placed there three years ago, but they are already seeing maintenance issues there.
“It goes back to the useage,” he said. “Indian Head was used very heavily. After school. Summer months. Vacation times. That playground is used.”
Playgrounds and Conley and Duval are also used constantly.
“Duval is used more heavily than Conley because of the area,” Szymaniak said. “After school we’re seeing heavy use by community members and, I think, that led to more rapid deterioration than the Conley large playground.”
Szymaniak said, however, that his priority is the Duval playground, because Conley’s main facility is still serviceable with some modifications. The interior playground, however, has to go.
“If I have to go on a need or want [basis], the Duval is need, the Conley interior playground is a want,” he said. “If that one [Duval’s] goes, the children have nothing. At Conley, at least they have the other playground.”
He added that he and Sullivan had brain-stormed fundraising ideas, in case that route is necessary and said the Duval PTO is also working on a fundraiser, but is low-level — envisioning that a couple of thousand dollars could be raised on a project that could cost between $300,000 and $400,000.
Talks with vendors have been used to get a cost estimate, but a contract would go through the state bid list, according to Sandland.
Committee Chairman Don Esson asked what $300,000 — which he characterized as basically a repair — extend the life of the Conley playground to compared to a $400,000 total replacement?
Sandland said the Conley playground, which was designed for kindergarten and first-graders, the price would be different. At Duval, pupils using the equipment would range from kindergarten to fifth-graders, so there would be different price tags. The size and footprint of the equipment would also be a lot different than at Conley.
Work to make the Conley playground safe and handicap-accessible is estimated to cost between $50,000 and $75,000, the district is working with a vendor right now because the goal is to make it safe. The manufacturer of the Conley playground is also different than the company that made Duval’s, Sandland said.
“I’m hearing if we do the repairs and make it handicap-accessible, we can get another 10 to 15 years out of [Conley’s] play structure,” he said. “To dump a boatload of money and not make it handicap-accessible, I think, is setting us up for a problem down the road, especially with the population and if we have full-day kindergarten.”
Szymaniak said the two playground projects were combined because, if Town Meeting approved the lower cost for the Conley repairs and not the funds for new equipment at Duval, it would create an equity issue within the school district.
At the moment, according to Town Administrator Lincoln Heieneman, the school district’s capital requests have been divided into three articles.
“That’s what I would recommend, but we’ll see how the Board of Selectmen feel regarding the draft warrant,” he said.
“I think we need to go back to the charge of the committee as to recommend or not recommend a project, regardless of the cost,” Committee member Fred Small said. “That’s what my interpretation of our charge is.”
Selectman Justin Evans asked if the Duval playground was the same one installed in 2000, when the school was renovated. Szymaniak confirmed that it was installed 22 years ago.
“I was moved from Holt to Duval as a fifth-grader, so this is the playground that I had at Duval?” he asked.
“So, it’s your fault,” Small joked.
“I was a big fifth-grader, I probably did some damage,” Evans replied.
Committee member Justin Casanova-Davis agreed the playgrounds are a public safety issue and getting Duval done is important, but indicated the data on the Coley equipment was insufficient. Member Josh MacNeil asked how often the playgrounds are inspected and if there would be recommended maintenance if new playgrounds are installed.
Sandland said they have had inspections of the equipment four or five times and noted the state does not require playground inspections. The district insisted on the 2020 inspection because they were receiving complaints. Any new playground equipment will be manufactured under new technology standards, for example the plastic-coated steel pipes are no longer used, replaced with electrostatic paint, which lasts longer.
Heineman suggested the School Committee might use a portion of excess and deficiency for some portion of the capital plan projects at the high school so both towns could share costs.
He suggested that perhaps use of a portion of the remaining $255,000 in the Other Schools/Capital Needs line for the Duval roof article, which is currently the largest outstanding capital article for the schools.
Esson said funding decisions were the turf of other committees, but the information he was hearing made him more comfortable about supporting the requests.
Warrant Article W-2 of the school department’s requests involves $181,000 for repaving the high school roadway and parking area, which are riddled with potholes.
“[On] most of the roadway, both layers [of asphalt] are shattered.” Sandland said. “It’s a mess.”
Because of the damage, parts of the pavement are plowed up during snow removal and nearly six tons of patch material has been used to make repairs at the high school alone.
“This winter, for some strange reason has done a number on the roadways, and we all see it, especially in Whitman and Hanson,” he said. “There were some roads I thought were pretty decent last year, today, not so good.”
Article W-3 is aimed at curtailing mold issues in the Whitman Middle School gym.
“I know we’re looking at a building project, but this we don’t want a recurrence of what we saw this fall,” Szymaniak said of the $100,000 sought. Consultants and other experts in the field have informed the district that the existing system is not working properly and needs to be replaced, Sandland said.
“The humidity that gets locked in there in the summer is brutal,” he said. “I ripped up some of that floor to see what was underneath, because we were having problems with dead spots … there is no vapor barrier.”
Moisture and heat comes up through the floor and needs to be ventilated out. Estimates are being gathered to determine a final cost estimate.
“It’s probably not going to be cheap, but it’s not going to be $100,000,” Sandland said.
Article W-4 is seeking $78,780 in funds for new F250 trucks for the district’s maintenance fleet. The current vehicles are breaking down as a result of age and use.
The district has to spend money out of the operating budget to make repairs to have the current vehicles pass inspection.
Evans also noted that both towns have Green Communities designations which require new vehicles to be more fuel-efficient than the ones they are replacing.
“Our police department has been quite happy buying hybrid vehicles recently, just due to the long idle times [and] the way we run them,” he said, asking if that was being considered. “They’re seeing reduced maintenance costs.”
Sandland said it was and that a dual-fuel vehicle was purchased for food services.
Article W-5 asks for approval of $45,000 for the replacement of rooftop units and chillers for the high school.
Article W-6 is seeking to transfer $6,060 to prepare a replacement schedule for rooftop units and chillers.