Costly to-do list faces schools — Roofs, septics and more need replacement


Middle school PCBs aren't the only problem facing Westport's aging collection of school buildings.

Mike Duarte, director of maintenance for the town's school's, recited a litany of maintenance-related issues when the school committee met last week.

Septic systems at the high school, middle school and Macomber are all at least 40 years old and on their last legs. The middle school has not only those PCBs to worry about but also a 24-year-old roof that will need replacement and heating system woes — "The poor middle school," Mr. Duarte said later.

The high school parking lots are cracked, water heaters and the fire alarm systems are will need to be replaced soon, and a damaged well isn't producing water as it once did.

And there are age issues at Westport Elementary and Macomber schools as well, he said. Macomber's parking lot is crumbling fast and Westport Elementary's roof is 27 years old — lifespan for such a roof is 30 years.

Those systems "have reached their limits," Mr. Duarte told the committee. "We are looking for trouble" if the maintenance issues are not tackled soon.

Committee member Michael P. Sullivan also expressed concern and asked Mr. Duarte to prepare a priority list of work that needs doing.

While it is unlikely that these projects can be squeezed into the schools' $300,000 annual maintenance budget, the time may be at hand to include some of the big ticket items within the town's capital improvement program, he suggested. Community Preservation money might also be sought to address some of the problems.

"This is a head's up about issues we are going to face before very long," Mr. Duarte said, and "not the sort of things that can be done within our maintenance budget … Septic systems, roofs — that's all bond-worthy stuff." For instance, it cost in the ballpark of $1 million to replace the high school roof several years ago. "That's our biggest roof but it does give you an idea of what's involved."

But "it's not all gloom and doom," Mr. Duarte said. "We are open, everything is running, the kids are learning in well-lit classrooms."

And "energy-wise we do a very good job." Energy ratings for the four schools "are very close to those of new buildings." That has been accomplished, Mr. Duarte said, with an aggressive program to equip schools with energy efficient lights, keeping boilers at at least 80 percent efficiency, among other things. At Macomber, systems enable him to monitor systems "even room by room." He gets notifications at home if a system is awry and can make adjustments remotely.

Westport High School and Macomber both have relatively new roofs in excellent condition, and even the older roofs are inspected regularly and patched when need be — "but you can only keep doing that for so long."

Septic systems are keeping up for now. "There's nothing flowing out of them, no neighbors complaining of the odor" but that day could come if nothing is done.

Maintenance delayed never saves money, Mr. Duarte said. "Patchwork costs time and money and then you still have to do the replacement anyway."

Westport High School came in for considerable praise in the recent NEASC assessment, the visiting evaluation team identified funding for things including facilities as a shortcoming of the town schools.

"Instructional materials, supplies, staffing and the school's facilities are not sufficient to fully implement the school's stated curriculum and appropriate range of co-curricular offerings," the report stated. "80 percent of parents believe that funding is not sufficient …"



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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.