City school plan mired in confusion

New London - An out-of-service sprinkler system at Harbor School led the fire marshal this week to deem the building unfit for occupancy and has revealed confusion over the district administration's plan to house a student services program at the school.

Last month, Superintendent Nicholas A. 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 more-than-100-year-old building are completed.

Those renovations will be paid for by the High Road program and are expected to be completed by November, Fischer said. Harbor School has been vacant since June 30.

But city Fire Marshal Calvin B. Darrow discovered problems with the school's sprinkler system Wednesday during a walk-through of the facility on Montauk Avenue, and further issues were identified Thursday.

"...When the contractor examined the sprinkler system the pipes were found to be blocked by debris and the dry valve was not operating. This system is out of service until further notice," Darrow wrote Thursday in an email to several city departments and employees, including Fischer. "This building shall not be occupied by the public at any time."

Darrow wrote that the city must "start immediate repairs and restore the system to its original integrity." He could not be reached Friday.

"The fire marshal said that he had concerns about the sprinkler system that would need to be cleared up," Fischer said. "There are some issues with the pipes there that frankly don't sound major but need to be addressed before we come back into the building."

Fischer said no program will use the school until the entire facility is up to code. The repairs will be paid for by High Road, a for-profit educational services company, and will not delay the program's transition.

But Margaret Mary Curtin, chairwoman of the Board of Education, said she is opposed to moving the High Road program to Harbor School and does not recall the Board of Education voting to approve the move.

"Quite frankly, I think it is the wrong move at the wrong time," Curtin said. "I think it really is coming down from the state. I know that Dr. [Steven] Adamowski has been involved in it. I'm not sure we made a formal vote on it."

Adamowski, the state-appointed special master in charge of overseeing the New London schools, said that in approving the district's strategic operating plan in June, the board charged the administration with returning outplaced students with special needs to the district. Currently, the district spends about $6.8 million annually in out-of-district placements, he said.

"We have an item in the strategic operating plan, which the board has already adopted, that sets this direction," Adamowski said. "I think it's in the hands of the administration to start implementing that objective."

At a special joint meeting of the Board of Education and the City Council in August, the two bodies discussed plans for Harbor School, but City Council President Michael Passero said his expectation was that the school would be "disposed" of, perhaps by finding a private developer to buy the property.

"The last we were officially told was that the administration and the Board of Education were supposed to come back to the City Council and tell us what their plans were for that building, and justify them," Passero said. "After that joint meeting the next thing we do is read in the paper that they decided unilaterally to keep this building and use it for this purpose."

Adamowski said the City Council was not involved in the decision to move High Road to Harbor School "because it is not their area of government." He said the council will be briefed on the plan after the Board of Education receives a report from the school administration, which is expected by the end of November.

Passero cited a "complete lack of communication" between the school administration and the city on the plans for Harbor School. "I'm willing to listen to the Board of Education on what their plans are and their justification," he said, "but hanging on to the school affects the city side of the budget and it also impacts our capital plan, and there has been no consideration of that."

If the City Council "were to have a buyer or developer for that property, the board has indicated a willingness to move to an alterative space," Adamowski said.

"The district needs every square foot of space it has in order to meet student needs it is not currently meeting," he said. "It is the intent of the district and necessary for the district to use all the space it can use."


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