Communication issues blamed for languishing New London school buildings, safety hazards

New London - The Capitol Region Education Council has warned the city that its failure to maintain the boilers at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School may have created a serious fire hazard.

CREC pointed out that a transformer in a room next to the boiler sits in a pool of water, among other problems, and that the maintenance of school buildings brings to light another issue - lack of communication between the city and school district.

"This is a serious fire hazard to equipment and potentially to human life,'' Diana I. McNeil, project manager at CREC, wrote in a March 22 letter to Board of Education Chairwoman Margaret Curtin.

The School Building and Maintenance Committee last year hired CREC - a statewide cooperative for public education - to manage the new construction at Winthrop and Nathan Hale schools. CREC also stepped in late last year to help the committee figure out heating issues and a leaking roof at Bennie Dover Jackson, which houses 600 students in grades six through eight.

In the letter, which was forwarded to the City Council Monday, McNeil also pointed out that a dial-up connection to warn of boiler problems was never installed and water treatment protocol to prevent pipes from corroding was never implemented. In 2010, two new boilers were installed at Bennie Dover at a cost of about $390,000.

While the problems are not serious enough to shut down the middle school, McNeil criticized the district administration for not telling the school maintenance committee about problems with the boiler.

"When issues arise, they are grossly misrepresented either due to lack of understanding or to cover up the obvious failure to bring them up at the SBMC or to the project team for resolution in a timely manner," McNeil wrote. "CREC wants to formally express our concern of a systematic pattern of disengaged behavior with regards to how these very critical issues are brought forth (or not) to the SBMC, and to the team that is working to address them.''

City Councilor Marie Friess-McSparran, chairman of the building and maintenance committee, agreed Tuesday with McNeil's assessment. The committee meets monthly and reviews a maintenance report from school officials, she said. The list generally includes things such as broken door handles and cracked windows, she said.

"But some of these major problems have not been on the list,'' she said. "Late last year was the first we heard about the boilers."

Committee members asked questions of the school administration but never were given satisfactory answers, she said.

"It was like a blank face was staring back,'' she said.

Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer denied Tuesday that the school district is withholding or misrepresenting information.

Fischer said he has three books documenting the ongoing boiler issue and invited the public to his office to see the "clear paper trail."

"The resolution to this has several parts to it - staff from the city and the school district sitting down with a neutral third-party facilitator and talking about what needs to be done to fix the problem," Fischer said. "It's not just a boiler problem. It's an infrastructure problem at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School. My concern is that we need a neutral third party to look at this, because the language that's used by CREC is not exactly neutral."

Fischer provided The Day with a list of problems with the boiler that Timothy MacDuff, chief of operations, had reported to the school building committee as far back as April 2010.

He also pointed to minutes from a March 2011 building and maintenance committee meeting that outlined the continued danger of potential employee electrocution because of drainage problems in the transformer room.

According to the minutes of that meeting, the city's assistant building official, Patrick Maurice, confirmed water has been a problem in the room since 2010.

McNeil said the first time CREC learned of the water problem was two weeks ago.

Fischer said the transformer in the electrical room has had to be replaced four times because of the standing water.

"There is a fundamental problem here. ... I do not accept in any way, size, shape or form the notion that we have not been reporting this," Fischer said.

The City Council will discuss the issues at a Public Works Committee meeting yet to be announced.

"I don't remember a more scathing report of an issue that has been going on for so long,'' said Councilor Adam Sprecace, who asked for the joint meeting with CREC, school officials and the building and maintenance committee.


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