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2009 report impacts school budget debate

February 6, 2019

STAMFORD — As Board of Education members look into the future of Stamford Public Schools’ budget, some are requesting they look into the past to see how the district got into its current fiscal situation.

On Tuesday, the board met to discuss the proposed budget for the 2019-20 school year, as well as a list of proposed capital projects ranked by the Planning Board, and what role the most recent facilities report on the schools — from inspector EMG in 2009 — should play in plans for the future.

The decade-old report revealed many Stamford public school buildings were flagged for mold and moisture concerns before this year’s mold crisis broke out causing many to ask the board to look back at the report and see what went wrong and what still needs to be fixed.

At the last regular meeting of the Board of Education on Jan. 29, a parent asked the district to hire a structural engineer, citing the 2009 report where consultants said “the steel may not be designed to handle the load of the floors and walls” at the old Westover Magnet Elementary School building.

“Since it appears little to no action was taken, how can we be assured the Board of Education and the city of Stamford will take appropriate action now?” asked Bridget Curry, a parent of two at Westover. “We need a structural engineer to assess the building. We might find out the building’s about to collapse.”

According to Mike Handler, head of the Mold Task Force and director of administration for the city, the task force has reviewed the EMG report for all Stamford schools and hired KG&D architecture firm, as well as a third-party firm, to come in and inspect the old Westover building.

“I simply ask people to be patient,” Handler said Wednesday. “We’ll disclose who’s doing what, but there’s a lack of understanding on the public’s part on the sequence of how we do things. It’d be reckless, to say the least, to start proposing a multi-million dollar project on a structure that’s not inspected first. The building is unoccupied at the moment. There’s no urgency.”

The Board of Education is a little less decisive on their stance on what role the EMG report should play in what they do going forward.

Prior to Tuesday’s special meeting, board President Andy George released a letter, to be addressed at the meeting, stating it’s his opinion that the city should look ahead, rather than focusing on a decade-old report.

“The 2009 EMG report contains comments and recommendations on many aspects of all our schools,” George wrote. “There are hundreds of items noted for improvement. It is convenient today to selectively highlight a few and question why they were not addressed over the past decade. ...While it may be tempting to assign fault, investigating will be complicated and costly. It will not change the current circumstances. We should focus on the present. We should work together, city and school system, to make our construction and maintenance efforts more effective.”

George asked the board at Tuesday’s meeting if they’d like to adopt this stance as a group, but not all members agreed on his message.

“I don’t want to find ourselves back here again one day,” said board member Betsy Allyn. “I don’t think there is any one board, one person, one system that is responsible for this. I think it’s a failure of multiple boards and systems, but if we don’t look back and see where our failures were, how can we analyze that?”

“I support what the letter is trying to deliver,” added board member Antoine Savage. “I just don’t think it’ll be delivered as such. I’m a big proponent of looking ahead, but the problem is this (report) is available. People are going to access it and we’re going to continue to get more findings and scrutiny about what happened. ... I just worry about ruffling feathers.”

Superintendent Earl Kim said the district is examining the way it addresses facility needs now in order to see where the process previously broke down and correct it.

The board agreed to not issue George’s letter as an official document, but to move forward and focus on the state of school buildings today.

Still the ghosts of the report and lack of focus on maintenance and upkeep of the school are present in this year’s budget proposals.

In a last-minute vote, the board agreed to a resolution proposed by member Jackie Pioli to ask the administration to increase the proposed maintenance and repair budget by $200,000 with the possibility of seeing if those funds can go specifically to preventative maintenance.

Board members had previously expressed concerns over the lack of increase in the maintenance budget after the mold problem caused by years of deferment.

According to the Board’s list of capital projects about $10.54 million in mold-related work is also being suggested. This takes up the majority of the $18.22 million proposed capital budget.

Among projects ranked under “tier M,” which is classified as mold and environmental remediation projects, are modular replacements at Newfield Elementary School, bathroom and floor replacements across several elementary and middle schools, air quality improvements across multiple schools, energy efficiency projects, HVAC upgrades and infrastructure renovation at Westhill High School and renovations at Stamford High School.

Security upgrades and district-wide modular construction remained the top priority projects outside mold. Once the proposed budget is approved, the school board can decide to re-prioritize different projects should the need arise.

erin.kayata@stamfordadvocate.com; (203) 964-2265; @erin_kayata

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