Select Board Supports HVAC Work At Orleans Elementary

By: Ryan Bray

Topics: Orleans news , Orleans Elementary School

An article will go before voters at the special town meeting in October seeking $1.4 million to improve heating, ventilation and air conditioning in portions of Orleans Elementary School. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS – How much is too much to spend to improve an aging building?

That was the question the select board wrestled with last week as it faced a $1.4 million request to make heating, ventilation and air conditioning improvements to portions of the Orleans Elementary School.

Board members expressed reluctance Aug. 31 about putting that much money into fixing the building, the original portion of which dates back to 1956. At $1.4 million, the HVAC fixes would amount to about a quarter of the school's overall $5.7 million assessed value.

The select board ultimately voted 5-0 to place and support an article on the Oct. 17 special town meeting warrant seeking funding for the improvements. But the discussion led town and school officials to address the need to begin planning for the elementary school's future.

"Obviously we need a new school, and we need to put that into the [town's] plans," Select Board member Michael Herman said.

The town hired BLW Engineers this spring to do a feasibility study looking at options for improving the school's HVAC systems. Ron Collins, the town's facilities manager, said three exterior HVAC units would be replaced with unit ventilators that would service the school's library, nursing office, two counseling offices and classrooms in the kindergarten through second grade wing. He said the exterior units, which date back to 1988, do not have return air capabilities and are not up to current code.

Town Administrator John Kelly said the HVAC work could be paid for out of $2.3 million in free cash the town has at its disposal. That would eliminate the need to borrow for the project, he said.

The Orleans Elementary School Committee initially sought to bring an article to the special town meeting seeking money to make window and roof repairs to the school. But Collins said the cost of the work would exceed 30 percent of the school's assessed value. As a result, the Massachusetts School Building Authority would require that the town have a plan in place to bring accessibility at the school completely up to code in order to do the window and roof work.

Without that plan in place, the school committee voted at its Aug. 22 meeting to instead move forward with an article to do the necessary HVAC work.

"We are not in the construction business, we're in education," Gail Briere, who chairs the school committee, told the select board. "When the facts were presented to us, it was clear to us that we needed to address the HVAC, because we could be living with this situation for several years. In my eyes, [the HVAC system is] not up to snuff."

Collins said BLW recommended that the town proceed first with the HVAC improvements, noting the "many years" it will likely take to make the accessibility improvements. The most critical improvements would be in the central bathrooms in the school's 1956 wing, which Collins said would involve HVAC, plumbing, lighting, roof work and some wall demolition.

"Almost every single thing in a building is going to be tackled into that," he said. Other work would include addressing existing handicap parking spaces at the school to make them more accessible to the building, an existing crosswalk leading to the school from Eldredge Park Way and accessibility issues in the school's cafeteria, kitchen and classrooms.

Apart from accessibility issues, Collins said the school is also in need of water, wiring and stormwater runoff work. All together, the town could be looking at roughly $4 million worth of work.

Mark Mathison of the select board expressed concern about the condition of school walls that have been damaged by water. Collins said in some portions of the building, stormwater runs from the roof right down the side of the walls.

I'm uncomfortable with that," Mathison said.

Concurrent with the HVAC work, the school committee plans to undertake a study to map out a plan for addressing the school's accessibility issues. That would be funded using $100,000 that has already been budgeted for fiscal 2023.

Kevin Galligan of the select board expressed concern that the $1.4 million figure for the HVAC improvements might end up being too low when the town goes out to bid for a contractor.

"I would actually propose that this thing be higher than the $1.4 million," he said. Collins said the figure, which includes contingency funding for unforeseen costs, is a "conservative" number.

Meanwhile, school committee members said the HVAC costs are already close to tripping the same 30 percent threshold that is preventing the committee from proceeding with the window and roof work. Ian Mack of the committee said the town should act to make the improvements now while it can.

But select board members said the time has come to plan long term for the future of the elementary school. Mefford Runyon said whether the existing school is renovated or a new one is built would impact his comfort level with spending the $1.4 million. A renovation would better justify the expense, he said.

It's been almost 10 years since the needs of the elementary school were last studied, and Collins said any planning for the school should come on the heels of the upcoming accessibility study.

Sassandra Roche of the school committee called the needs facing the school "overwhelming" and "suffocating."

"They're going to look at all the things that Ron laid out, and probably some other things," she said.

Resident Brian Sosner said in planning for the elementary school's future, the town should consider taking a "campus" approach to the school property. He said the town's shrinking elementary-age population could allow for the construction of a smaller school, which in turn could leave room for other needs such as a community center.

"This is the perfect location to have multiple locations for different age groups," he said.

But a new school could still be 15 years away, Galligan estimated, leaving town officials to contend with the existing building's needs in the short term. Select Board Chair Andrea Reed said the town is not fixed to a timetable for when the school will be improved or replaced, and that she saw the HVAC improvements as a good investment.

"We're getting our money's worth by providing air," she said. Galligan, however, countered that a recent assessment of the current system found that the air in the school is "viable."

It was confirmed during COVID. There's no problem with the quality of the air," he said.

Heading into the special town meeting, informing voters on the project and justifying its cost will be critical to the article's passage, said Galligan.

"We know that voters need to be educated on this, because it's a big number," he said.

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