District looks to fix problem that soaked New London school

New London — The latest estimate on damage to the Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School caused by a burst pipe is in the $200,000 to $350,000 range and the district is looking at ways to prevent it from happening again.

The district, already tightening its fiscal belt because of revenue shortfalls, will be responsible for the $100,000 deductible through its insurance carrier, Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency. Board of Education President Mirna Martinez said the board has yet to discuss the cost and expected to receive a recommendation from the district's finance director.

The damage to the school, which since has been cleaned up, was caused when a heating pipe burst at some point during the night of Dec. 29. It was not discovered until the next morning, said interim school Superintendent Stephen Tracy. By then water had cascaded from the second floor onto the first floor, soaking 11 classrooms, along with bathrooms, hallways and faculty spaces.

Contractors spent the next week drying out the school and cleaning up the mess. The work included tearing out some of the sheetrock walls that had gotten wet to ensure there would be no remaining moisture that would cause future problems.

School district Facilities Manager Miguel Gautier, who addressed the Board of Education on Thursday, said the problem stems from an automated outdoor damper that opens and closes to provide fresh air to the school’s heating system. Overnight temperatures dropped into the single digits that night and apparently froze the vent in an open position. Cold air flowed unabated into the school and managed to freeze a heating pipe, which then burst in two places.

The district initially called off school on Tuesday, Jan. 2, but quickly realized the extent of the damage and suspended school for the entire first week of the new year. Work by contractors included repair of the heating system and removal of damaged items, including furniture, carpets, cabinets, books and other materials.

During an informational meeting held at Nathan Hale, parents did not complain but rather asked what they could do, Nathan Hale Principal Carlos Leal said in an address to the school board on Thursday. It was a testament, Leal said, to the tight-knit community at the school.

“Everybody kind of rallied,” Leal said.

He told the school board that the school governance council has discussed ways to make up the two extra days the students missed. As it turned out, two of the four days the school was closed ended up being snow days for the entire district. So far, Leal said, the school has decided to bring students in on March 9, a day that was supposed to be a teacher meeting day.

Gautier said he is looking for ways to prevent such an incident from occurring again. A possible fix might be the installation of a freeze stat, a device for HVAC systems that monitors the temperature in the system and automatically can keep the hot water moving through the pipes to prevent a freeze-up. Gautier said the initial cost estimate is about $40,000 to install such a system at both Nathan Hale and Winthrop STEM Elementary Magnet school, the two schools susceptible to the problem.

g.smith@theday.com

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