WHITMAN – The Capital Committee views roof repairs at Whitman Middle School as a maintenance, rather than a capital project, issue, but there is some difference of opinion among it’s members on whether the town or the school district should foot the bill.
No votes have been taken as yet, but are expected by Thursday, April 14.
Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak said he has discussed a $54,000 mold reimbursement request with Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman after the school had a major mold outbreak in the gymnasium over Thanksgiving. The article seeks reimbursement of emergency remediation funds, including cleanup costs so students could occupy the building after the holiday break.
“It’s been reimbursable in the past,” Szymaniak said.
“Most of us have kind of seen this before,” Chairman Don Essen said following a lengthy discussion last month of School District capital articles on the Town Meeting warrant. “We’re aware of this issue.”
“The town’s position, through me and the Board of Selectmen, is that this is not a capital item,” Heineman said. “Obviously, the schools disagree and I respect that – we understand their position on it – but we just don’t see it as a capital expense.”
He explained that the regional agreement does not specify length of service as a qualifier for capital project status.
Committee member Fred Small, who is also a member of the School Committee, expressed a different opinion, arguing the regional agreement does include language pertaining to an “extraordinary repair.”
“If this went unresolved, I believe we would have had to close the school,” Small said during the March 17 discussion. “I don’t think you could have students in there with mold and that type of environment.”
He said children should be confident in going to school and playing in a gymnasium that does not harbor mold – caused, he said, by a leak in a roof after a decision was made many years ago that the district would try to get by without repairing or replacing the roof because of clawbacks in the cost and the fact that a new roof project was being sought before the useful life of the rood had been reached.
“I wish this hadn’t happened,” Small said. “I wish that the money didn’t have to be spent, but I don’t know that it’s a district expense. The district is a lessee. Granted, the town doesn’t charge us for the building, but we are the lessee.”
Esson asked is a bleach agent or other chemical was used to clean the mold, how long it could take and how long the remediation could take.
“I do know there is infiltration in that gym,” Building Inspector Robert Curran said, noting water has been getting in through the roof and down through the exterior. “I remember walking through inspections every year and you could smell it.”
Facilities Director Ernest Sandland has been good at getting air quality tests done, but the only way to reopen a school after a positive mold test it is to put negative pressure in the gym and seal it all off, using a safe chemical agent to clean it Curran said.
“I don’t agree that this should even be in front of this committee,” he said. “I think this is a maintenance issue. It’s not a capital expense and we don’t really have a choice because the money’s already been spent – it’s a reimbursement issue, and I think the town should reimburse the schools.”
Esson said that, while he also views it as a maintenance issue, the funding source is important.
Curran asked if Heineman thought the money should come out of the district’s operating budget.
Heineman referred back to the regional agreement.
“There’s not debate whatsoever that this needed to happen in order to have a safe environment for the kids there,” he said. “It’s just a question, for me, of the regional agreement. The regional agreement specified that capital expenses are split out in these ways.”
He agreed “100 percent” that it was a maintenance expense – which the regional agreement puts at the responsibility of the school district “full stop.”
Selectman Justin Evans said section E2 of the regional agreement places the burden of cost on the towns for “special operating costs, unique to a town for maintaining programs or services.”
“I think this qualifies,” Evans said. “Though probably not a capital cost which should be paid by Whitman, it’s unexpected, it’s particular to one town, it probably doesn’t come to this committee, but I think a warrant article to the town is appropriate for reimbursement.”
In general – with no specific school in mind – committee member Josh MacNeil asked how such mold problems could be prevented.
Curran said he does annual internal and external inspections of all schools, but said WMS has “been a problem since the day it was built.” Previous sick building problems across the state have changed codes on air exchanges for buildings, as well.
“Whatever they’re doing to keep that gym open has been really good,” Curran said.