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Local School HVAC Project History Highlighted At Statewide Press Conference



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School air quality was the focus of a recent statewide press conference, and Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku was a featured participant offering insights from Newtown’s past and present.

According to an announcement for the event, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), in coalition with the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE), the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS), the Council of Small Towns (COST), AFT Connecticut, and CSEA SEIU Local 2001, is calling for the state and Governor Ned Lamont to be a funding partner in improving school heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and air quality improvements in public schools across the state.

The virtual conference event was held on September 23, and Ku was one of multiple people to speak on the importance of air quality in schools.

“There is an overwhelming need for funding from the state to municipalities and their boards of education to upgrade HVAC systems to ensure adequate air quality in public schools as Connecticut continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic,” said CCM Executive Director and CEO Joe DeLong in a release following the event, adding that the situation’s burden cannot be left to taxpayers. “While CCM and municipal leaders have reached out to the administration in a collaborative spirit to address this critical issue, our outreach has been met with resistance and frankly comments that have been both unproductive, disingenuous, and snarky. For this reason, today we are taking the additional step of seeking support from the General Assembly since administration officials have made it clear that when it comes to air quality for our children and educators they are more interested in finger pointing than partnering to resolve the issue.”

During the conference CEA President Kate Dias called the air quality situation a “political volleyball.”

CAPSS Executive Director Fran Rabinowitz said districts need help from the state to help municipalities improve HVAC systems and air quality year-round, and many districts would not be able to afford to do those improvements on their own.

CSEA Executive Director Dave Glidden pointed out that higher air quality reduces the transmission of diseases.

“We need to make sure they are breathing safe air while they are doing their important work,” Glidden said of students and educators.

Newtown’s Air Quality Efforts

When Ku spoke she offered the perspective that Newtown has been “working on these issues” for decades.

Ku noted that 20 years have passed since the district commissioned an air quality study and a multiboard committee to address HVAC systems in the district. At that time, the cost was estimated to be close to $30 million to provide HVAC projects for five of the seven public school buildings in the district. That estimate was later reevaluated to be $14.5 million, according to The Newtown Bee’s archives.

According to a 2003 story published in The Newtown Bee, the Climate Control Committee recommended projects, listed in the order of importance, for Head O’ Meadow Elementary School, Hawley Elementary School, Newtown Middle School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Middle Gate Elementary School.

“Excluded from the report was Newtown High School, which underwent a series of renovations in 1999, and Reed Intermediate School, which was under construction as the committee did its work,” the August, 2003, story in The Newtown Bee reads. “Comprised of field experts, teachers, local administrators, parents, and ex-officio members, Superintendent of Schools Evan Pitkoff, Finance Director Ron Bienkowski, and Buildings and Grounds Director Dominick Posca, the committee convened last November after a study by EnviroService Consultants, Incorporated, revealed slightly elevated levels of carbon monoxide in some district classrooms.”

The 2003 committee report included details for “a minimum cost scenario maintaining existing equipment and systems, a minimal cost/benefits scenario adding necessary or significant climate control enhancements, and finally a set of options for long-term improvement plans.”

The 2003 story continues, “According to the committee report, school officials received daily complaints from the occupants of Head O’ Meadow School that it was either too hot or too cold in the building. Built in 1977 with air conditioning and non-screened windows for fire egress (and, as it turned out, insect access), the committee recommends that a $3.2 million long-term improvement plan be applied. The HVAC system, close to the end of its useful life, will be replaced.

“Hawley School, built in 1921, with an attached section constructed in 1948, has generated complaints of uneven heat, lack of ventilation, and classrooms that are almost unbearably hot in the fall and spring. In addition, the winter brings inconsistent heating that leaves classrooms too warm or too cold. The committee recommends a $2.9 million long-term improvement plan that would replace the 1948 steam boiler, upgrade the 1921 boiler, upgrade the 1948 HV system and air conditioning, upgrade the 1921 HV system and add air conditioning to the 1921-built section.

“Newtown Middle School,” the 2003 archive story reads, “built in 1952, is a complicated series of buildings to evaluate. Reconstructions, renovations, and other implementations over the years have added to the school’s architectural complexity. The committee recommends a $3 million minimal cost/benefit scenario involving the replacement of existing steam boilers and piping distribution to hot water system, replacement of ventilation fans, and replacement of AC systems for the administrative area, media center, and computer classrooms.”

The committee also recommended improvements for the original 1956 Sandy Hook School building.

And finally, the 2003 story reads, “Middle Gate School, built in two sections in 1964 and 1993, respectively, has the lowest renovation costs. For $550,000, the committee recommends a minimum cost plan that would involve the replacement of exhaust fans in the cafeteria, gym, and adjacent toilets. In addition, the committee recommends upgrading the controls of computer lab and media center air conditioning.

“Longtime complaints about Middle Gate School have centered on the lack of air ventilation, particularly in the gymnasium/auditorium. Occupants describe the room as ‘unbearable’ when assemblies or meetings are held during hot and humid weather.”

The Work Continues

In the conference, Ku noted Newtown has three school buildings left to address.

“Since then, we have seen the gradual change in climate, and we’ve had a pandemic to highlight the shortcomings of school ventilation systems,” Ku said. “The current estimated cost to modernize the ventilation systems in the three remaining schools is close to $19 million.”

Ku also noted that voters will be weighing in on one project, an $8 million ventilation project for Hawley Elementary School, in this November’s referendum.

The original portion of Hawley School, which faces Church Hill Road, opened in 1921. Ku said it is celebrating its centennial anniversary next year.

“At the same time, we hope to be adding ventilation and air conditioning to the original building as well as the 1948 addition and updating the 1997 addition,” Ku read from a prepared statement.

The Hawley HVAC project has been on Newtown’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for more than a decade, according to the Newtown Board of Education chair.

“As our weather patterns lead to more hot days at the beginning and end of the school year, the classroom conditions in all classes, but especially the third floor classes, become unbearable,” Ku said. “The windows can be opened, but because the school sits close to a main road, the noise and air quality are no improvement to teaching and learning conditions. Likewise, for the classrooms at the front of the building, opening windows during the pandemic has not been practical.

“Over the 20 years since the ventilation study, the district has made-do,” Ku continued. “For example, to address [COVID-19] concerns, portable HEPA units have been distributed in the three schools that lack modern ventilation systems. And prior to [COVID-19], the district installed ductless split air conditioners in designated rooms to provide ‘cooling stations’ in the schools that do not have air conditioning. But each of these solutions only addresses one aspect of air quality — either purification or temperature.”

Ku reflected the school HVAC projects are townwide building projects that are not “one- or two-year projects.” Like other press conference participants, she said HVAC improvements are not projects that can be addressed by [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSR)] funds.

In a follow-up e-mail, Ku explained that ESSR funds “to a small extent” could be used toward projects but she also noted the projects span years and require significant planning while ESSR funding is short term and would only cover a fraction of the total costs.

Ku stressed that there is a need for a long-term solution for “these complex projects,” while offering a suggestion that the state could match “a certain percentage of funding for HVAC projects that districts commit to.”

“These are not maintenance projects that have been delayed because textbooks took priority over new carpeting in the Board of Education budget,” Ku said. “These are townwide projects that take years of planning and investment. I worry that without state and federal support, there will be disparities in whether towns and cities can garner the support from taxpayers and locally elected officials needed to address these long-term issues in all of our schools.”

For Newtown, Ku noted after the press conference in an e-mail to The Newtown Bee, Newtown’s remaining three school HVAC projects — Hawley, Newtown Middle School, and Middle Gate School — are all on the Board of Education’s CIP. The current Hawley project is slated to continue through 2023, assuming voter approval, the NMS project is planned for 2023–26, and the Middle Gate School project is anticipated for 2028–31.

“The voters in Newtown have traditionally seen the value in public health and safety and have been supportive of these kinds of projects. Providing an environment conducive to health, teaching, and learning in all of our schools is an important investment,” Ku concluded in her e-mail.

Education Reporter Eliza Hallabeck can be reached at eliza@thebee.com.

Board of Education ChairMichelle Embree Ku
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