Selectmen tour PCB-haunted middle school


Superintendent of Schools Carlos Colley took town selectmen on a PCB tour of the middle school Thursday and described efforts to remove the stubborn carcinogen from school air and materials.

The walk-through happened before the selectmen decide whether to back a Town Meeting warrant item request to cover to the $100,000 cost of continued PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) testing.

Testing needs to go on, he says, to make sure that occupied spaces remain safe. But longer term he believes the town will have to face the question of what to do with the school.

"I don't think you will ever get it all out," Supt. Colley said recently of the middle school PCBs. At the moment, they know they face years of testing along with perhaps more removal and stabilization work. At some point that cost will have to be weighed against the cost of building anew.

"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."


Recent tests have revealed that PCB levels exceed federal safety limits in only a closed guidance office and another small work area. PCBs are still present, however, in many places including the main entranceway and even the deep into soil beneath windows. These areas are deemed safe because there is sufficient ventilation to keep readings at low levels.

After PCBs were discovered three years ago, the schools launched an aggressive cleanup that involved ripping out contaminated ceiling tiles and rugs, replacing windows and their caulk, and encapsulating other trouble spots beneath paint-like epoxy sealant.

Not only was that costly (over $3 million), but Supt. Colley said it left the middle school in less than ideal shape for learning.

Without acoustic ceiling tiles, many areas are much noisier than before. Once quiet classrooms, as well as the library, cafeteria and other spaces have been transformed into places where every sound is amplified.

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

Beyond that, the superintendent said families will be asking the question "whether you feel comfortable sending your child to that building."

Those, though, are question to be answered in the future. For the time being, he said it is important that testing continue sand that the engineering firm hired by the school continue "poking about" in search of trouble spots and solutions. It is to continue that testing, he told Selectmen Thursday, that a warrant item is needed since there is no such money in the budget.

The four plans

The four long-term 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.