Concerns persist over pace of school project

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This drawing by Fletcher Thompson Architects of Shelton shows how the courtyard and new corridors could look at Laurel Ledge School following the planned renovations. -CONTRIBUTED
This drawing by Fletcher Thompson Architects of Shelton shows how the courtyard and new corridors could look at Laurel Ledge School following the planned renovations. -CONTRIBUTED

REGION 16 — As summer moves closer to fall, the three-part school building project remains in a holding pattern.

Stanley Pilat, chairman of the school building committee, told the Board of Education Aug. 28 the committee is uncomfortable with the way the project is moving forward.

In December 2011, voters in Region 16, which oversees schools in Beacon Falls and Prospect, approved bonding $47.5 million for the project. The project entails a new pre-kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school in Prospect, renovations and additions to Laurel Ledge Elementary School in Beacon Falls and a new district office.

The new school and work on Laurel Ledge have faced significant delays this year.

The committee is just about ready to request bids to construct the new elementary school. It has been waiting for a final letter of approval from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection on the septic system design.

Superintendent of Schools Tim James said the district received an unsigned letter from DEEP the day of the meeting. He expected the district would receive the final signed letter this week. As of this post, the district had not received the signed letter.

Pilat said the delays from the state weren’t anticipated and pushed the schedule for the new school back six months.

“Unfortunately we missed some good construction time during the summer,” Pilat said.

While the new school project has been delayed by layers of state bureaucracy, the main concern of school officials with the Laurel Ledge project is the local review process.

Due to the case load at the state Bureau of School Facilities, state officials requested a local review of the designs for the new school and work at Laurel Ledge be done.   

The towns of Prospect and Beacon Falls each hired someone earlier this year to do the reviews. State law requires the towns hire someone for the reviews, but they are paid from funds for the school project. 

The town of Beacon Falls required the consultant have professional liability insurance and hired Bruce Spiewak for up to $30,000. Spiewak was the only bidder to meet the town’s requirements.

The town of Prospect hired Henry Miga for about $3,200.

The review for the new school in Prospect was completed in about three weeks. The review of Laurel Ledge has yet to be finished and Spiewak is requesting another $24,000 to complete it.  

Although they acknowledge reviewing designs for a renovation project is more difficult than those for a new school, Region 16 officials have repeatedly raised issues with the time and money it’s taking to review the Laurel Ledge designs. Those trepidations were once again aired last week.

“The building committee and the Board of Education are concerned about the cost of the local review process, the delay in completing it and not being able to request bids for construction as a result,” Pilat said.

Pilat continued, “They are also concerned that the review process continues with no apparent end in sight and that any specific conflicts that may be keeping the process from coming to closure have not been articulated to the building committee or Board of Education.”

The main bone of contention is what exactly needs to be reviewed on the Laurel Ledge designs.

Architects from Fletcher Thompson, who are working with the district, and school officials argue the review is only applicable to the scope of the project. The project entails building corridors to connect the buildings at the campus-style school, renovating two bathrooms and construction of a new science room.

Officials have pointed to state statute that says the state Board of Education does not require code compliance improvements to the existing part of the building not affected by a project.

Beacon Falls Building Official Doug Colter contends it’s not that cut and dry of an issue.

Aside from the local review done for the state, Colter said in a phone interview there are two other parts of the review process to issue permits — building code and fire safety code compliance. 

Colter said the scope of the project, particularly the corridors, impacts other parts of the school.  

Colter said the way the school is designed now there are direct exits to the outside in every building. Adding the corridors impacts the number of egresses, he said. If the auditorium or cafeteria is filled with students and an emergency occurs, the children may all need to use a corridor to get outside if another exit is blocked. This would change the use of the corridor and is a safety issue, he said. An egress plan has to be addressed that may be outside the scope of the renovations.  

Colter said the architects have taken a red pen and arbitrarily decided what work is to be reviewed.  

According to Colter, a list of about 50 issues was sent to Fletcher Thompson in early April to be addressed, but his office and Spiewak haven’t received a formal response with solutions to their questions.

“Our job is to question? They’re job is to answer,” Colter said.

Pilat told the board the architects have dug in the heels a bit at times with issues they feel are out of the scope of the project.  

Colter said the review process will be a thorough one because the building is filled with children.  

“The building is filled with children and we’re doing our best to protect them,” Colter said.

During the board’s meeting, frustrations once again bubbled to the surface.

“It’s my opinion that the town itself and the [building] office we sought the approval from has been an obstacle in getting the project moved forward,” Pilat said.

Board member Robert Hiscox said the review is taking too long and took issue with the cost of the Laurel Ledge review compared to the new elementary school review.

James said he authorized an additional $10,000 but not the $24,000 the consultant is seeking. James said he requested a detailed break down of expenses and a credit for work done that the board considers out of the scope of the project.

Colter said Beacon Falls waved the building fees for the project as long as the district paid the exact costs of the reviews. He said the $30,000 was consistent with other bids the town received to do the review.

The bill in April to perform the review and produce a checklist of issues was $17,000, according to Colter. The remaining $13,000 in expenses derived from time spent answering questions and going back and forth with the architects, he said.

Colter said the additional $24,000 requested was estimated based on the way the process has gone thus far.  

Pilat told the school board the committee thought it was paying for professional services with the $30,000 and didn’t anticipate additional charges to attend meetings or the request for more money.  

“We’re paying for a review of the project and that hasn’t happened yet,” he said.

School officials are hoping to send both the new school and Laurel Ledge projects out to bid at the same time in the hopes of receiving lower bids.  

Hiscox said the committee is likely to move forward with the new school project if the delays continue with the Laurel Ledge review.

“The longer we wait the more it’s going to be costing us and the less we’re going to be able to do for the students,” he said.

Board Chair Priscilla Cretella asked that James discuss the issues with the Laurel Ledge review with the board’s legal counsel.

“We’ve got to get to the bottom of this and deal with this,” Cretella said.

In an interview the day following the board meeting, James said it is not the board’s intent to seek legal action only to find out what, if any, options they have moving forward.

James said the likely date for the groundbreaking for the new elementary school is now mid-October. He’s confident both projects will get back on track.

“It’ll move forward and we’ll do the best that we can, and we’ll try to make up for lost time,” James said.