School Board Puts Off Decision on Fate of Portable Classrooms

October 4, 2013
by Barbara O’Brien

It took nearly two hours of volatile discussion and back and forth bickering and innuendos between Windham School Board members before they decided not to make a decision on the fate of the aging portable classrooms at Golden Brook School.

The issue has been a hot topic in Windham since mid-summer when word got out that water leaks around window unit air conditioners had caused a mold and mildew problem in some of the classrooms in the 14-year-old structure.  Although the damage has since been repaired and recent air quality tests have showed the 10-classroom portable building to be safe for occupancy, the debate about what to ultimately do with the facility has continued to rage.

During the most recent meeting, on October 1, school board members were presented with the results of a study conducted by Trident, a project management company out of Salem, New Hampshire.  The study involved a review of existing conditions, as well as recommendations.  The study was described as “an independent voice” on the subject.

According to Trident representative Gino Baroni, the existing portable building “is showing its age.”  “As it gets older, it’s going to cost more to maintain,” Baroni said.  The life expectancy of the portable facility is about 20 years, if it receives adequate maintenance.

The portable facility was built in 1999, but has been on site in Windham for only the past four years.  It was first located in Windham by the State Department of Education for use as a kindergarten building.  After three years of lease payments being made by the State, however, Windham took over the cost.  Just a year ago, Windham took on a lease/purchase agreement with a price tag of $77,000 a year for five years.  Only one payment has been made to date.  Now that the kindergarten has a permanent building, the portables are being used to house first-graders.

According to the recent study performed by Trident, there are clear signs of vertical settlement and horizontal shifting, which have caused damage to both interior and exterior finishes.  It appears that the majority of windows have leaked, causing moisture to penetrate the exterior wall system.  During the recent installation of new “through the wall” air conditioning units, areas of decay in the exterior wall sheathing were uncovered and, subsequently, repaired.

“In summary,” the report reads, “the overall existing condition of the building, based upon this non-intrusive investigation, was found to be in fair-minus to fair condition, with need of repair/improvements to the envelope (siding) and possible structure.”

After reviewing the results of the study, SAU 95 Business Administrator Adam Steel told school board members that the administration was recommending that the existing portable structure be replaced next summer with a new and higher quality modular building.  “Modular does not always mean cheap or temporary,” Steel said, although that description does fit the existing portable.  The cost of purchasing an upgraded version and removing the old building would be in the neighborhood of $1,299,000, not including water service for a fire sprinkler system ($25,000), a cistern, if required ($55,000) or covered entryways ($9,000).

As for the disposal of the existing portable structure, Baroni said it would be difficult to find a market-rate buyer to purchase the facility.  “The potential of finding a willing buyer has a low probability,” he said.  “This is a second-use facility that was delivered to the Windham School District in 2009.  Any potential buyer would be a third-use owner,” he explained.  The 9,500 square foot building is currently valued at only $20,000.  “There’s just no current demand,” Baroni stated.  In fact, the Windham School District might have to pay someone to dismantle the existing portable and cart the materials away.

Steel said that to replace the current structure with an upgraded version of the same size would cost taxpayers about $300,000 per year for a period of five years, at an interest rate of about 2 percent per year.  In addition, however, the school district would still be responsible for the remaining payments of $77,000 per year on the portable building it would be getting rid of.

Another option that was raised was the possibility of building a two-story portable structure, one that could have 16 to 20 classrooms or other learning spaces.  The cost of the two-story concept would be more than double that of a single-story modular, Baroni estimated.

The remaining options that were not recommended by administrators include doing minimum upgrades to the existing portable building, with the intention of prolonging its life expectancy by about three more years or spending about $100,000 on it to do a major overhaul and stretch its life span out for about 10 more years.

“There are multiple issues that need to be resolved,” Superintendent Winfried Feneberg told school board members.  “It’s complex.  It’s a moving target.  It is not a static problem,” he said.  “Nobody is asking anybody to make a decision tonight.”

School board member Stephanie Wimmer said she wanted more information about the school district’s other needs before making a decision.  “We feel the building is safe right now,” Wimmer said, adding that she feels there is time for further investigation into the issue, before any decision is reached.  “We need to know what else is lurking out there,” she stated.

School board member Michelle Farrell agreed with Wimmer.  “The portables are just one piece of the puzzle,” she said.  “There are major capacity issues to be resolved.  We need to address grades one through eight,” Farrell said.  “I don’t want to take away 10 (classrooms) and just add another 10 (classrooms).”

Board member Dennis Senibaldi, who has favored fixing up the existing portable classrooms from the get-go, said he feels it’s a great idea to replace them someday, but not now.  “If we can get another four or five years out of it, we should do that,” Senibaldi said.  “I’d rather spend a smaller amount of money and get a few more years out of the portables.”  It’s more important to focus on the space crunch issue at this juncture, he added.  Three of Windham’s four public schools are over-crowded and getting worse.

School board member Jerome Rekart emphasized that something definitely needs to be done in the short-term to address the situation with the condition of the portables.  Winter is coming, Rekart said.  “There are things that need to be taken care of right now.”

Windham parent Danielle Stuttgart said she would feel better about keeping the old portables in place if she knew they were consistently being assessed.  “We are doing everything we know to do,” Steel responded.  “Maintenance of that building is a priority,” Feneberg said.  Any weak spots are being remedied as soon as they are discovered, he stated.

Board chairman Michael Joanis said he is concerned about the fact that the building is still settling and is, therefore, likely to continue deteriorating.  The classrooms are built on a cinder block and dirt foundation.  Joanis said he questioned the advisability of spending a lot of money to fix it up.  “I see a structural problem,” he said.

Long-time resident Bob Coole said he saw nothing wrong with fixing up the old portables, so they could be used for another four or five years.  “Seeing as we’ve already got them, fix them up and use them,” he said.  Resident Kelly McAllister said she was opposed to spending so much money just to replace 10 existing classrooms with 10 new classrooms.  McAllister said she didn’t like the “tit for tat” concept.  “The school board needs to be more forward thinking,” she said.

Saying that he thought it was time for board members to stop talking and make a decision, Senibaldi made a motion to repair the envelope (siding) of the existing portable.  Estimates to replace the siding ran the gamut from $18,000 to about $60,000.  The motion died, however, due to the lack of a second.

After Senibaldi’s motion failed to generate any support, Barodi was instructed to begin an intense structural assessment of the existing modular classrooms at Golden Brook School.  The topic will, most assuredly, be raised again.  The school board will hold its next meeting on Thursday, October 10 at 7 p.m. in the cafeteria at Windham Middle School.