Majority of Board Votes Not to Spend More Money on Renovating Modular Classrooms

April 25, 2014
by Barbara O’Brien

Following one of the most acrimonious meetings in recent years, the majority of Windham School Board members voted to halt any further investigation into the condition of the modular classrooms located at Golden Brook School and to stop any additional spending on renovations.

The 3 to 2 decision came after hours of wrangling, not only among school board members themselves, but even more so by members of the public who attended the April 15 meeting.  The decision to scrap the proposed renovations was not a popular one among some in attendance, while others were very supportive.  Voting on the motion not to spend any further time, money or resources on repairing the 14-year-old portable classrooms were Chairman Jerome Rekart and board members Michael Joanis and Rob Breton.  Voting against the motion, were Vice Chairman Dennis Senibaldi and board member Ken Eyring.

The three school board members who voted to discontinue plans to renovate the 10 classroom portables, which were originally used to house the school district’s kindergarten students, made their decision based on recommendations from several environmental and engineering consultants.  In the comprehensive report issued by Trident, a project management company in Salem, New Hampshire, the recommendation was to “remove the current facility and replace with a newly manufactured code compliant facility, specifying an upgraded interior and building envelope, including low maintenance exterior details.”  The recommendation was based on “the nature of the potential mold issue and its impacts now and in the future, the basic cost/benefit/expected life of the current modular building versus a new modular building and statements from consultants that no guarantees, expressed or implied, would be provided regarding the complete elimination of mold through any renovation efforts.”

The portable classrooms at Golden Brook, which most recently housed first-graders, were evacuated in late February because of the discovery of additional mold and mildew in areas above the ceilings of several classrooms.  The first-graders were then moved to the main building, resulting in the third-graders being relocated to a section of Windham High School, supposedly just for the remainder of the current school year.  Following that relocation, much of the portable structure was dismantled, in an attempt to reveal the full scope of the mold problem.  While environmental studies showed that the issue was fairly minor at the time, no one was willing to guarantee that any remediation would be permanent.  The cost of the consulting and analysis that was done was in the range of $56,000.

Gino Barodi, spokesperson for Trident, explained that his firm had been tasked with determining the best avenue to take in dealing with the future of the portables.  While Trident continues to maintain that the best course is for the modular building to be replaced, the company was also asked to determine the maximum cost of renovating and upgrading the existing facility.  “Trident recommends we carry a budget estimate of $832,182 for this project,” the reports read.  “This is a real number, established by experts,” a representative of Bonette, Page and Stone, one of the consultants, stated.  This cost does not include any remediation of mold, a covered walkway between the existing modular building and the main building at Golden Brook, an upgrade of lighting fixtures to save energy, or any life-safety improvements that might be required as a result of this project.  “Trident still believes the building should be taken down and replaced,” Barodi emphasized.  The estimated cost of replacing the existing portable classrooms with a like-size new modular structure would be in the area of $1.3 million.

“The building could be remediated,” SAU #95 Business Administrator Adam Steel said, but it would involve an enormous cost.  Recommended remediation included taking down all the walls to check for additional mold, as well as pulling up carpeting and rotting flooring, in addition to roofing, ceilings, insulation replacement, etc.

A spokesperson for Universal Environmental Consultants, which evaluated the mold levels, recommended that all walls, carpeting and insulation be removed, as well as rotted window sills and rotting sections of flooring and a mold inhibitor be applied, should school board members decide to reconstruct the existing structure.  Even under these circumstances, however, there was no guarantee given that mold problems wouldn’t reoccur anyway.  RPF Associates, a second environmental firm used for evaluation, said that the lack of sufficient ventilation in the portable structure is also a major problem.  “The building needs more fresh air,” a representative of RPF stated.  The mold problem wasn’t more severe than it was in the classrooms, he said, because most of the airborne fungal spores stayed behind the vinyl wallpaper.  “That was a good thing,” he commented.

Superintendent Winfried Feneberg, who came on board this past July 1, emphasized the need to address the issue as quickly as possible.  “All we have there now is a shell,” Feneberg said, referring to what is left of the modular building.  He asked board members, “Where do we go from here?  We need to plan for next year, one way or the other.”  Given the large amount of money being estimated to renovate the structure, Feneberg questioned whether it was a smart way to spend taxpayer dollars.  “We need to be able to assure parents that a safe and viable building will result,” he added.  “From a cost perspective, I would advise against renovating,” Feneberg said.

Bids on the individual portions of the proposed renovations were received at the April 15 board meeting, but had not been made public yet.  “We can’t make a valid decision without seeing the bids,” Senibaldi said.  Steel said the bids hadn’t been revealed yet as more information was forthcoming.  “It’s to the school district’s benefit to wait” on making the bids public, Steel said.  “The bids will be made public.  There’s no question of that,” Steel said.  “The question is when they will be made public, not if.”

Breton hypothesized how much lower a cost could make the idea of renovating more palatable, as opposed to demolishing the existing building and replacing it with a new modular.  There are already several recommendations to tear it down, he said.  “Long-term, a new modular would last longer than if we renovate the existing facility,” Breton noted.

Steel asked one of the consultants, “How much might we save if all the stars align and everything goes right?”  The response was that $50,000 to $100,000 might possibly be saved off the guaranteed maximum price of $832,000, if everything went as anticipated.  “If it was my building, I wouldn’t renovate it, based simply on the cost,” he said.  “I don’t see the guaranteed maximum cost moving down a lot,” Barodi added to the comment.

Eyring wanted to know why there might be any mold left in the building if all the proposed renovations are done.  The consultant from RFP Associates said there is no guarantee that all the mold could be removed.  “Mold lies dormant until it becomes active again,” he said, based on humidity and temperature.  “Wood is porous and any leftover mold spores could become active again,” he explained.

During the public input session, several residents commented that they wouldn’t put another dime into the existing structure.  “You can’t just hope that it’s done right,” one resident said, commenting on possible health threats to staff and students.  “Don’t put any more money into something that’s really not salvageable,” another resident advised school board members.  Another resident, however, said he believed the building could be put back together, if “the proper people” do the work.  Yet another parent, however, implored that the portables be replaced.  She stated that her first-grader, who was housed in the portables this year, had missed a full month of school days, while only missing a single day last year when she was in the new kindergarten building.

The atmosphere at the meeting really became volatile, however, when Tom Murray, CEO of Pugliese Contracting, came to the podium and attempted to discuss the reconstruction bid he had presented.  Although the bids had not yet been made public, Murray said he wanted discuss issues pertaining to the project in public.  Murray is also a Windham resident and does have children in the local school system.  He is also involved in developing a local charter school.

School board member Michael Joanis contested Murray revealing information to the public prior to all bid information being made public.  When Murray declined stepping down from the podium, Joanis recused himself and left the room.  Based on legal advice Joanis had been given previously, he felt the discussion was becoming inappropriate.  “I’m not going to be a party to this,” Joanis said.

Ken Eyring stood up for Murray speaking about his proposed bid.  “He should be allowed to speak,” Eyring said.  “This is why the public doesn’t trust the school board.  On several occasions throughout the evening, Eyring referred to the public’s alleged distrust of actions taken by school administrators in the past.

Murray said he would rescind his bid on the project if allowed to continue speaking publically about the issue.  Chairman Jerome Rekart said that Murray had the right to speak.  “Nobody is trying to stop that,” Rekart said.  “The school board has the right to accept or reject any bid we receive.”  Murray requested that a new bid process be initiated.  “I am disappointed in how this process has gone,” Murray said.  “There needs to be a comparison of apples to apples,” Murray said.  “That hasn’t been done.”

Although stymied in his attempt to present a full breakdown of his bid presentation, Murray did state publically that the total “bottom line” of his proposal came to $246,541.  Murray said he had already evaluated the existing structure using a thermal imaging camera and had been able to find wet areas in ceilings, floors and walls.  “I simply want to see if I can help with some expert professional guidance,” Murray told school officials.  When Murray began to detail the attributes of his company, however, Rekart put a stop to the discussion.  “This feels like a commercial; an advertisement,” Rekart said.  Rekart said he was concerned about destroying the bid process by allowing Murray to continue in that same vein and was worried about possible legal ramifications.  Superintendent Feneberg also said he was “somewhat uncomfortable” with what Murray was saying during the meeting.  “The process is not finished yet,” Feneberg commented, adding that he felt some of Murray’s comments could be construed as “maligning toward other reputable companies.”  Murray had commented that he was disputing the findings of other firms involved in the process, when it came to replacing the building, rather than renovating it.  “We have no interest in this project but the interest of the school district,” Gino Barodi, Trident’s spokesperson, said.  “We have not compromised our own ethics.  We will walk away if you feel otherwise,” Barodi said.  Subsequently, however, Barodi was assured that school officials had complete faith in his company’s efforts.

At this point in the meeting, when the hour had already passed midnight, people in the audience became further incensed and began yelling at one another and at school officials, who, for the most part, remained fairly calm despite the escalating anger.  There were, however, several disparaging remarks made by certain board members regarding the character and performance of other board members.  One resident suggested having an attorney present at school board meetings.  “The school board should review what happened here tonight with an attorney,” she advised.

Steel suggested having a professional comparison done between the proposals made by those who presented bids for the project, so that board members could make a more informed decision on how to move forward.  Steel’s recommendation was disregarded, however.  “Is the school board willing to spend even $246,000 to renovate the portables?”  Steel wanted to know, referring to the bid made by Murray.  Joanis, who had returned to the table by that time, said he couldn’t support renovations even at a low bid of $246,000.  “We need to move forward with a permanent solution,” Joanis said.

Eyring said he wanted to form a committee of local experts to review and compare all bids received.  Eyring said he wanted to assure that the process is “open and transparent.”  Eyring’s suggestion didn’t garner sufficient support, however, and the motion to stop spending money on the portables was made and approved 3 to 2.

School board member Rob Breton, who was elected last month, said he voted against the renovations due to concern for future health (mold and mildew) issues.  “We won’t get enough life out of the building, even if we renovate,” Breton said.  “Clearly, it would just be another band-aid.

Board member Senibaldi said the decision not to renovate the portables was “irresponsible” at this juncture.  “We haven’t even seen the bids yet,” Senibaldi said.  “We need to finish the process,” he said, noting that thousands of dollars had already been spent on the problem.  Eyring’s comment after the vote was, “We just buried this board tonight.  We did an injustice.”

Chairman Rekart said he felt it was time for the school board to make a decision on the issue.  “All I’ve heard from residents is that we need to move on; that we need leadership.”  That is what the school board is doing, he added.

In the near future, the school district facilities committee will come up with alternatives for dealing with the space problem created by the loss of the portable classrooms at Golden Brook School.  Those options will be presented to the full school board at a future meeting.

Information on the bids received was made public following the meeting on April 15.  That information is available at the following website: http://sites.windhamsd.org/business/news.