Middle school: Keep up PCB fight or build anew?


WESTPORT — While PCB continues to turn up in middle school tests to varying degrees, Superintendent of Schools Carlos Colley issued a sobering assessment of the situation when the school committee met two weeks ago.

He reiterated that concern last week, saying that he foresees a possibility of PCBs "being a problem forever." While cleaning and sealants may eventuality prove effective at containing the carcinogen, the schools need to explore all options.

To address that and other issues facing the town school system once and for all, the committee plans to present four long-term options to the Westport Capitol Improvement Planning Committee. Three of those involve shutting down the middle school and building something new, while the fourth involves a complete renovation of the school and others.

Although no dollar amounts are yet attached to any of these, they all involve either new schools or complete renovations, and all would involve long-term borrowing.

For now, the intents is to look at alternatives and gauge community sentiment for a solution going forward.

In order to qualify for 46 percent state reimbursement for projects meant to begin in fiscal year 2014, state rules require that a school system submit a "statement of interest" by April 10. Such statements must be approved by the Board of Selectmen.

Supt. Colley said Westport would not be committed to anything by filing a statement of interest but that it needs to do so if it wants to be considered for reimbursement during the 2014 fiscal year. Otherwise, any project would face delay to a future funding year.

"I don't think you will ever get it all out," Supt. Colley said Thursday of the middle school PCBs. At the moment, they know they face years of testing along with perhaps more removal and stabilization work.

With some of the cancer causing PCBs deeply embedded in building materials, one option is to encapsulate trouble spots, coating them within "a paint-like epoxy solution to seal it (the PCBs) beneath the surface and away from contact with the air."

Still, questions of cost, safety and school suitability remain.

"Some of it is just economics," the superintendent said. Over the long haul, if the cost of building a new school is not much more than the cost of "spending a lot of money to make an old school usable … There are decisions to be made."

And with that, there is the question of "whether you feel comfortable sending your child to that building." He added that he only areas where tests detect above-limit PCB levels at present are now closed to students and staff.

Beyond that it the fact that PCB work on the school has left it a noisier place that is more difficult for students and teachers alike.

As part of the first round of PCB removal, old acoustic tiles were removed throughout the school, leaving bare concrete ceilings behind.

Once quiet classrooms, as well as the library, cafeteria and other spaces have been transformed into places where every sound seems amplified.

"Imagine about 25 kids pulling a chair out at the same time — it can be quite a racket," said Principal Alec Ciminello. And the cafeteria gets deafening at lunch time with no ceiling tiles to absorb the sounds of talking, chairs and trays banging about.

In the meantime, an engineering firm hired by the schools continues to "poke around the building" in search of problem areas and possible solutions — such as encapsulation. "It may be that a reasonable solution can be identified … We are simply trying to explore every option right now."

"These aren't questions we are going to answer this year but it is critical to get this conversation started," Dr. Colley said. "These are difficult issues that must be faced and the more people in the community who get involved, the better off we will be."

The four plans

The four options under consideration at this point are:

Option 1: Abandon Westport Middle School and build a new school near the high school with the intention of establishing a school campus that would enable sharing of facilities.

Option 2: Abandon all of the town's schools except Westport Elementary School. In their place, build a new combined high school and middle school. Along with that, an addition to and other renovations at the elementary school could make it possible to accommodate pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students.

Option 3: Abandon the middle school, build an addition to the high school and renovate the rest of the high school. This would establish a junior/senior high school for grades 6-12. At the same time,  Macomber School could be expanded to include pre-kindergarten through second grades; Westport Elementary School would be renovated for grades 3-5.

Option 4: Complete renovation of the middle school to eliminate PCB problems once and for all, work that could include replacing every window in the school and installing all new ceiling tiles, among many other tasks. The other town schools would also receive renovations.


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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.