New London superintendent offers dire warning about middle school boiler

New London - After a boiler at the Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School failed on Jan. 24, the Capitol Region Education Council warned the city that its failure to maintain the boilers may have created a serious fire hazard. But on Thursday, Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer said the boiler could have exploded and cautioned that the school's entire heating system needs to be fixed or replaced immediately.

"The state boiler inspector who came down (in January) said that the boiler could have exploded," Fischer said. "There is more than a half million dollars of repair work that needs to be done to the pipes, the heater system and the pumps that go into the boilers."

Gas leaks, caused by a contractor who ruptured a connection to the boiler, created the danger, he said. The issue was raised at a meeting of the Board of Education's School Facilities and Program Design Committee Thursday evening.

For 20 years, Fischer said, the system has been neglected as a result of value engineering. Now, the building is on the verge of a total failure.

"You have a system that on any given day could fail," Fischer said.

"What is going to happen if it does fail is that there is going to be a lot of finger-pointing, so I want this board to be very clear that for more than a year and a half now, we have been talking to the school building maintenance committee, we've been talking to the city, about the danger of this."

Though the gas leaks have been repaired, Fischer estimated that there is an 80 percent chance of a failure in the boiler system at the school. Further, he stressed that if these problems are not addressed as soon as possible, someone could be seriously injured.

Fischer urged Board of Education members to reach out to the City Council to determine how the city will tackle the problem.

"If there is water in that pool down where the transformer is, it could electrocute an employee. If a custodian walking into that boiler room (on Jan. 24) had sparked something, that boiler would have exploded. Kids would get hurt," he said. "At some point or another, as a city and as a community, we need to start taking this stuff seriously."

Jason Catala, chairman of the school facilities committee, said that he is not confident that the school is safe for students.

"I wouldn't be able to send my child off to school knowing there is an 80 percent chance of a safety issue," he said. "I need to study the issue further to see if (the superintendent) is using scare tactics, but I'm very concerned because the safety of our children should be the most important thing."

But Fischer said the school remains safe for students. If the system does fail and the school cannot be occupied, Fischer said, classes could be moved to the National Guard armory on Bayonet Street.

In 2010, two new boilers were installed at Bennie Dover at a cost of about $390,000.

Also at the committee meeting, school system Chief of Operations Timothy MacDuff announced that the sprinkler system at Harbor School has been flushed and passed its latest inspection "with flying colors."

"By code, you have two minutes to get water from the basement up to the sprinkler heads in the attic," MacDuff said. "Today, it got there in 33 seconds."

Two weeks ago, the sprinkler system at the school was out of order, leading the fire marshal to deem the more-than-100-year-old building unfit for occupancy.

In September, Fischer announced that High Road, a program for students in grades six through 12 who have emotional disabilities, will move from Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School to Harbor School as soon as renovations to the facility are completed.

c.young@theday.com

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