School infrastructure woes raise concern at education, finance board meetings
Water fountains boarded over at Ridgebury Elementary School, a crack running through Scotts Ridge Middle School, pavement at the front of Branchville Elementary School that “looks like it was paved one pothole at a time,” bathroom stall doors that won’t close at Ridgefield High School, dilapidated front steps at East Ridge Middle School — the town’s nine public schools are in need of some long-standing repairs.
That was the takeaway from discussion at two public meetings, Jan. 14 and 15, which offered slightly different portrayals of the situation..
The more dramatic version of the situation was presented by Board of Education Vice-Chair Doug Silver, who raised the issue at the end of the board’s Jan. 14 meeting. Silver and fellow board member Fran Walton recently toured several of the schools as part of a subcommittee assigned to look into ways the town can deal with crumbling school infrastructure.
“Our buildings need attention,” Silver said Monday. “These are things that — you need to have them working.”
The committee is made up of members from all three of the town’s main boards — Silver and Walton from the school board, Amy Freidenrich and Jessica Mancini from the Board of Finance, and Maureen Kozlark and Steve Zemo from the Board of Selectmen.
Mancini and Freidenrich told the Jan. 15 finance board meeting that there were a lot of problems, but their tone was more measured than that of Silver — who had recited a litany of problems at the tri-board meeting in December, prompting the committee’s tour of school facilities.
Freidenrich said issues, such as “leaking roofs” raised “a long-term concern with mold” although there was no mold seen on the tour.
“In my mind, I was underwhelmed with the concerns brought up at the meeting,” Freidenrich told the finance board Tuesday night.
The group toured seven schools — Ridgefield High School, Scotts Ridge Middle School, Ridgebury Elementary School, Barlow Mountain Elementary School, East Ridge Middle School, Veterans Park Elementary School, Branchville Elementary School, and Farmingville Elementary School — with district facilities manager Joe Morits. Silver said they spent about 45 minutes at each school.
The group started out at the high school, where the board has heard concerns about bathrooms in the past — including stall doors “that don’t close all the way.”
At Scotts Ridge, Silver said the group saw a crack in the flooring that looked like a “structural defect” in the building.
“The selectmen need to get professional engineers in there,” he said.
The crack extends from the faculty lunchroom through the student cafeteria, he told his fellow board members.
“That’s pretty startling to see in what’s a pretty new building,” Silver said Monday.
At Ridgebury Elementary, Silver saw “boarded up” water fountains, and areas where the staff uses buckets to catch rainwater.
“The area where somebody with a wheelchair would have to get in is something that should be marked off with yellow tape,” he added.
Barlow Mountain Elementary, another stop, has had its own problems with leaks from a glass vestibule at the entrance to the school — the school keeps a tarp over the leaking roof.
Replacing the vestibule, expected to cost $55,000, was included in the $1.7 million capital improvements request the school board asked for in December.
At East Ridge Middle School, Silver pointed to aging bleachers that required additional maintenance. Veterans Park Elementary has an aging gym floor, he said.
Silver was quick to point on that the committee could not change this year’s budget, because the board has already approved their capital improvements request, “we can hopefully find other ways to address the issues that are coming out,” he said.
Requests for large infrastructure projects — capital improvements — that fall outside of normal maintenance are sent to the Board of Selectmen in a separate request, typically a few months before the Superintendent presents the school budget for the next school year.
The request is reviewed and bundled together with capital requests from the town before it’s passed along to voters at the annual town budget vote in May.
Silver said he was particularly taken aback by the state of Branchville Elementary.
“I was shocked how old that building is,” Silver said. The school opened in late 1969 — nearly 50 years ago.
“I have been in schools in the county, and in the state, and nationally — I have never seen a building like that in a suburban district,” he added.
He recalled seeing evidence of water damage in the ceiling, dim hallways with asbestos flooring, a playground “in shambles” with cracked pavement underneath a basketball net, and potholes at the front entrance.
“It’s disarming, it’s disgusting,” Silver said.
Finance board member Sean Connelly, who attended the Monday school board meeting, told his finance colleagues that Silver’s report had been dramatic.
“He was practically in tears. He was very choked up,” Connelly said.
Mancini and Freidenrich were asked after the meeting if the perception they were less alarmed than Silver was correct.
“Amy and I share concerns,” Mancini said. “But they don't rise to the level of Doug's urgency.”