Town To Spend Up To $130K On Building Study
While considering the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) this year, a project that had been on the town’s radar for several years — an HVAC system at Newtown Middle School — raised alarm bells for new school Facilities Director John Barlow. Barlow became concerned with the age and condition of that school, and thought it was possible the town might be wasting money on an HVAC project when there may be much larger and more immediate problems at the school.
Barlow suggested the town do a study of all the school’s buildings for their condition, looking at all the buildings holistically, determining what is needed at each school, and making sure the envelopes are holding up.
“The idea is to get a better understanding of what the building might need,” said First Selectman Dan Rosenthal. “It gives a better understanding of where we are in terms of infrastructure and what our best path is. This should be done once a decade, but it’s been longer.”
The Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance both approved $65,000 toward the study from the Capital Non-Recurring Fund, while the Board of Education approved the other half, $65,000, from its Non-Lapsing Fund. The price is $130,000 before the split.
“This is a unique one,” Rosenthal said. “The spirit of doing this came out of the middle school HVAC project, which is now on hold.”
Rosenthal noted that the money approved by voters to do design work for the HVAC project will not be expended.
“We put the pause button on spending money on expensive design work that we would not be able to get back if we don’t do that project,” the first selectman explained.
During early drafting of the CIP, school officials in September expressed concerns that $12 million might not be enough for the HVAC project. The number was increased to a placeholder number of $25 million, but there were concerns that the town would be spending $25 million for that and then have to spend much more than that for other repairs and improvements.
A scenario of $75 million to refurbish the school and do the HVAC system was mentioned at one point, but as Superintendent of Schools Chris Melillo noted, that was the “worst case scenario.”
During CIP talks last month, the middle school HVAC was moved to this year from year two, according to Barlow. He also said the number is a placeholder while a study is done to determine the true cost and to see if there are any other problems at the middle school that might add to the overall costs to taxpayers to keep the school in good working condition.
Rosenthal stated the issue was a “conundrum,” in talking with Melillo and Barlow, and the study would help the town get a better handle on the costs, and see “how much is too much to put in.”
“We don’t want to put in $25 million and then another $20 million,” said Rosenthal. “That’s throwing good money after bad.”
Rosenthal said that “even at $25 million,” he would have difficulty supporting it and he felt the public would as well, just to fix the HVAC at one school.
BOE Chairman Deborra Zukowksi said the study would “look at whether it is worth it to do work on the building or possibly put the money elsewhere.”
Barlow had concerns that doing the HVAC work could waste even more money than is spent to do it, due to other conditions with the building.
Primary among these is the building envelope.
“If you take the existing envelope and put a high efficiency air conditioning system in, you could end up wasting money,” said Barlow, due to the lower temperature air being able to bleed outside. “It’s not sustainable.”
Barlow also noted the building has groundwater issues and problems with insufficient classroom and learning space sizes that are difficult to fix due to the layout.
At the November 8 BOE meeting, Barlow noted that a request for proposal (RFP) for the study has not been written yet.
“The RFP will be written for request for qualifications first,” he said that night. “The estimate is based on my previous district; we did a facilities study a year and a half ago, and that facilities study came in at $120,000. $20,000 of that we didn’t expend so we spent only $102,000 on the facilities study for a six building district, so based on that estimate, I think we are pretty much in the ballpark.”
BOE member Shannon Tomai asked if the RFP would ask for “recommendations and not just a list of what is wrong.”
Barlow said he has used the RFP and tailored it from his previous district.
“One of the things we added into the RFP was a functionality study, to look at space functionality for our educational programs in all of our buildings to kind of look at the district as a whole rather than individual pieces of buildings,” he said. “In the studies that I’ve done in the past, what happens is that they do an assessment of the buildings … and then they prioritize based on end-of-life equipment or what are the biggest needs to get repairs done first.”
Barlow said his previous district “revamped” its capital plan to incorporate what were identified as number one priorities during the study, confirming they assign value to the priorities.
BOE member Todd Higgins asked if there was anything going into the RFP that was more “granular” than the middle school, “given that there is this open and potentially significant question of what’s going to be the best plan.”
“No,” said Barlow. “The driving force on the facility study was in fact that there was an approval of $450,000 for design for a indoor air quality improvement to the building. With my overall assessment of the building, in the forefront I felt that to spend $450,000 on a project that could potentially be put on a shelf and not ever be done was a foolish way to spend our money and that the facility study really needed to be part of the driving of what’s going to happen with air conditioning and that’s why it’s so important to know what all the other facility conditions in that site are.”
Zukowski brought up that it is a legal requirement for a facility study to be done every decade, and it is time.
“What’s going to come out of it is a very good foundation to how we’re going to move our buildings and our district forward,” she said. “That’s very important. In order to properly spend the money that we are requesting in CIP, there’s big money requests in CIP even over the next couple of years.
“They talked about that in Board of Finance with the anomaly of the $12 million expenditure that we had put in as a placeholder for the air conditioning for the middle school knowing that potentially that placeholder of $12 million could far exceed that number,” she said.
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