School building challenges causes concern

The high school building has a number of structural issues which precipitated last year’s referendum for a new building. With town residents voting down the proposal, new solutions have yet to be proposed.   Students and staff became more aware of building deficiencies as a result of this winter’s roof leaks. Custodial staff removed ceiling tiles and placed buckets along hallways to catch the dripping water.

Pei Yi Zhuo and Elise Dudley, Broadcast Coordinator and News Editor

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The History of the Building

According to the facility study presentation at the joint Town Council and Board of Education meeting on February 10, 2015, the high school building is 87 years old. The town constructed the original three story building in 1928 and have made six major additions to it over the decades.

During 2014, in the midst of talk regarding renovations to the high school auditorium, the Town Council recommended a review of the entire school building. An architectural company called Tecton completed this study in 2015. According to the facility report they produced, the first building expansion occurred in 1952 and included the Old Gym. The ensuing decades saw the addition of the library, the weight room, the music room, and more classrooms. In the 21st century, the town made its final expansion consisting of the 900 block and a new entrance.

These expansion projects gave the high school a large footprint. The facility study presentation cited the “large, sprawling floor plan” as problematic, delaying students when walking between classes and creating a confusing layout. “Building sprawl” was also identified as a problem by principal Bill Silva.

Furthermore, Silva made clear of the general lack of space in areas such as the auditorium, the library, and the cafeteria. He also mentioned that additional classrooms are needed to better serve students.

The age of the building presents further problems including energy efficiency issues as well as noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) evaluation of the school noted that much of the high school falls short of the requirements set by the initial ADA law in 1990 as well as subsequent updates to accessibility standards.  

For instance, many areas of the school cannot be reached by a person in a wheelchair. Notable spaces include the weight room and the mezzanine in the library. Bathrooms in areas like the 600 block are similarly inaccessible.

The elevator that provides second and third floor access is also inadequate due to the difficulty of maneuvering a wheelchair. Furthermore, some of the ramps located throughout the building are too steep.

According to the NEASC report, the town earmarked $75,000 for the 2015-2016 budget in a five year Capital Improvement Plan for improving ADA compliance in the building. NEASC considered this fix to be an inadequate solution for the long term issues regarding accessibility. However, according to Dr. Megan Rachford from the Community Health Center of New Britain (CCMC), the law does not require all sections of a school building to comply with modern standards.

“Existing schools (which are most of the public schools in CT) are allowed to meet the regulations/laws in various ways. Existing schools do not have to make all existing classrooms/buildings accessible to students with disabilities provided that all programs at the inaccessible school or classroom are also available at an accessible school or classroom,” Rachford said.

Furthermore, the 2015 facility report noted “microbial growth” in rooms 705 through 710. The report suggested the possibility that water may be seeping through the ground as a result of “subterranean hydrostatic pressure”. According to Silva, there is no other formal report that has identified a mold issue with the school.

Dr. Rachford shared her knowledge on the possible health concerns regarding mold exposure, and expressed that little is known about exposure to mold in schools.

Study results vary on whether or not mold causes illness. The Institute of Medicine Reports state that exposure to mold does not cause people who are otherwise healthy to become asthmatic, or have respiratory or other illnesses. The same IOM reports, however, do show a positive association of increased respiratory symptoms after exposure to mold in known asthmatics who have a sensitivity to mold,” Rachford said.

Odors present another challenge to staff and students. There is a history of foul smells in room 701, where social studies teacher Jefferson Gawle teaches around 140 students over the course of a day. During the 2016-2017 school year, a sewage leak occurred underneath the floor. The smell of fecal matter spread throughout the lecture hall. Repairs quickly resolved the sewage issue.

The room faced further issues during February of this year, as another air quality problem arose involving “exhaust fumes” in room 701. According to Gawle, this hampered instruction, “making teaching and learning more challenging”. Some students also reported headaches after exposure in the room. This problem has since been resolved.

 

The Referendum

Last year in June, Farmington citizens turned down a plan for $135 million to build a new high school. The “no” vote prevailed with a two-thirds majority. Turnout approached 40% of all registered voters at 7,440 according to the Hartford Courant.

The plan proposed by the high school building committee involved a complete overhaul of the existing school building. 86% of the proposed school building would be brand new. The building committee had considered less drastic renovations, but found that the benefits of a new school was worth the increased cost.

The new school would have focused on community learning with new classrooms, a new cafeteria, new gyms, as well as a more efficient floor plan. The town intended the new building to address the problems raised by the 2015 Tecton Architects Facility Report as well as the 2015 NEASC evaluation which stated that current school facilities “do not support the delivery of high-quality school programs and services in all areas.”

Despite these improvements, the Hartford Courant reported that Town Council Chair Nancy Nickerson suspected residents struck down the measure because they were uneasy over the state budget at the time.

“I definitely see why the building got voted down, whoever designed the building decided to make this one of the most expensive school plans to build in the country. With that said, the current state of the school is unacceptable and even if it isn’t the most advanced building, a cheaper alternative would make perfect sense . . .,” junior Greg Lagosz said.

The outcome of the vote disappointed staff members including English teacher Lauren Luciani.

“I was saddened to hear that the referendum was voted down, but knowing that students and teachers have the resilience to learn and teach is a testament to our ability to continue on though there is cause for frustration,” Luciani said.

Principal Bill Silva shared Luciani’s sentiments.

“As a non-voting member of the FHS Building Committee, I supported the proposal for a new building that was approved by the committee, the Board of Education, and the Town Council that went to referendum last June. I was disappointed by the results of the referendum,” Silva said.

Currently there are no proposals for renovations at the scale of last year’s plan, despite the persistence of the issues presented in the facility report and the NEASC evaluation.  

 

Recent issues

This winter, water on the roof of the school began to leak through the ceilings into hallways and classrooms. Custodians removed ceiling tiles in the 600 and 800 hallways where leaks occurred. Similar leaks also happened in other areas of the school including the social studies and English office, the library, and the orchestra classroom.

In the social studies and English office, the leaky ceilings disrupted teachers’ work. Plastic wrap covered two teachers’ desks, rendering them unusable for their occupants.

“I will say that teacher morale is incredibly low in the office, as many of us feel under appreciated for what we do,” Gawle said at the time.

According to the February 14 parent letter from Dr. Silva regarding the issue, high school custodial staff along with Silktown Roofing, an outside vendor, installed  “funneling systems” in areas of the ceiling where leaks occurred to direct the flow of the water into containers. In other areas, water dripped from exposed areas of the ceiling into collection buckets.

Over the four day Winter Recess in  February, Silktown Roofing worked to mitigate the effects of the leaking roof. The contractor installed drains outside the building to channel water off of the roof. Leaking stopped once the water on the roof completely evaporated.

“Since the installation of the roof drains and the complete drying out of the areas where the leaks occurred, all ceiling tiles have been replaced, buckets and other collection systems have been removed, and no new leaking has occurred even during the heavy rain and snow in March,” Silva recently commented.

In his February letter, Silva also informed parents of the proposed 2018-2019 Capital Budget which included appropriations for a “partial roof project” in which certain parts of the roof will be replaced. Both the Board of Education and the Town Council have since given final assent to a proposed town budget that allows town residents to decide via referendum on April 26 whether municipal bonds will fund the roofing project. According to the minutes of the March 17, 2018 Town Council Meeting, in the event that the public do not approve the bonding proposal, the council agreed to “commit to fund the project . . . because of the extreme need for the repairs.” The project is expected to cost $209,000.

“The current and worsening condition of this space is a constant reminder to many of us (that truly love our jobs), that the gap between who we claim to be and the reality of who we are has grown increasingly wider. This seriously undercuts our ability to achieve our mission,” Gawle said.