CMS PTA Peppers Superintendent, Facilities Director about Building Safety of Condemned Building

Greenwich Schools superintendent Dr. Toni Jones and director of facilities for the district Dan Watson, met on Zoom with Central Middle School PTA before break to talk about hopefully making the building safe for students to return to after school vacation on Feb 22, as well as other issues of safety and a new school down the road.

Scaffolding wraps around the gymnasium at Central Middle School. Feb 13, 2022

On Feb 4 the building was condemned and the district dispersed students to Cos Cob School, Eastern Middle School and Greenwich High School.

“We will continue to advocate for CMS, advocate that our new school be prioritized, and continue to make our voices heard,” said Brian Zeller, the CMS PTA co-president. “There should be zero excuses from any arm of the government.”

Dr. Jones said the first priority was to get the students back in the building and have a normal spring, with athletics and activities on schedule. The second goal was to examine the timeline for repairs, and, third, to get a new school.

Jones and Watson said an aggressive timeline for a new school would be four to five years.

If a new building were to be built behind the existing one, students could remain in the existing building during construction, similar to what was done at New Lebanon School in Byram. That new school opened in February 2019 and the former school, constructed in the 1950s, was was demolished in June.

Apropos of the cracks in the walls, Mr. Watson said the walls have 4-inch exterior blocks and 6-inch or 8-inch interior blocks, with a gap of air between.

“The 4-inch block on the outside is attached to the 8″ block by a galvanized strip – a wall tie,” Watson continued. “These wall ties, in some of the areas we inspected, have failed. They failed because of the water intrusion between the blocks, which was part of the original design.”

Watson said primary areas of concern from the report by Diversified Technology Consultants were the “sally port,” a connecting corridor from the main building to the science and media wing, and concerns about the exterior of the gymnasium and auditorium. He explained that the building engineer, who has been monitoring the walls, was considering repairing the walls using Helical ties, which are stainless steel rods that look like twisted icicles.

Director of Facilities for Greenwich Schools Dan Watson said the 4″ block exterior walls have shown movement and in some areas it is possible to see a bulge in the wall.

“Out of an abundance of concern, the building department deemed it necessary to close the building for human occupation,” he said. However, he added that the 4-inch wall was not a full load bearing wall for the roofing system.

Watson said the scaffolding was designed for long term use, and would likely stay up through July.

He said scaffolding experts from Safway were doing the work and it will function similarly to scaffolding typically seen in front of urban skyscrapers.

“When they’re doing work above you, you can walk underneath it without any fear of something falling on your head.”

The scaffolding will have plywood planking on top, and there will be separate covered walkways leading out of the gymnasium at the two emergency doors. There will always be egress for every door listed as an emergency egress.

“We’ve gone over this with the fire marshal, and he’s in approval with us,” Watson said.

“Once the scaffolding is done, the entire structure will be covered with construction netting to prevent people from climbing it, and also to prevent anything that may fall off a wall (from hitting someone.) It would hit the netting and fall straight down and not go out into the unprotected area.”

– Dan Watson, Greenwich Schools director of facilities

Watson said the contractor, Wernert Construction, a local, family owned business, will be doing the work, and that they were already an emergency contractor for the district.

Dr. Jones said that if there were weather delays, there would be “problem solving again,” and that over break she planned to explore available spaces, though she noted the BOE building on Greenwich Avenue, once a school itself, was no longer conducive to classes because the space is divided into offices for the 100 people who work there.

“Ideally, we’d like to have full classroom spaces, but we don’t have that kind of empty space around Greenwich,” Jones said. “When we relocated North Mianus School, that was challenging, and that was half the number of students…”

Jones said the CT Dept of Education no longer had the authority to allow Greenwich Schools to pivot to remote learning.

“It is absolutely not an option,” she said, adding there had been other situations like CMS’s across the state, and the CT Dept of Education didn’t want to make an exception for one school and not the others.

“We’re committed to in-person,” Jones continued.

PTA leaders said parents were concerned about sending their children to a building deemed unsafe for human occupancy “after a quick fix.”

Jones said the town building official acts on the highest level of safety, especially knowing there are children in the building. “They’re not going to let us back in the building if they don’t feel like our children are safe…They’re tough. I was surprised they shut the school. It brought everything to a head. It brought people to the realization that we need to do something here.”

Asked why the building review didn’t take place sooner, since it was known for years the building was in poor condition, Watson said timing came into play.

“We’re in the middle of not only rebuilding NMS but we’re also in the middle of a pandemic, and trying to keep people out of the building – that included engineers and architects,” he said.

“We had limited amount of vendors in the building. That’s the main reason. But the study of the building is multiple layers. The Diversified Technology Consultants organization has been reviewing different parts of the building for a while. They started the crack monitoring. Once it got a little more involved is when we went to contract with them to do a full study. If and when you read the study, it’s not just the structure of the building – it’s a total building assessment: the infrastructure, the roofing system, the whole mechanical systems as well as exterior masonry. It was a preliminary, all inclusive assessment.”

As for mold and leaks, Watson said a 70-year-old building would be expected to have leaks.

Sand bags in front of double doors at the rear of Central Middle School. Feb 9, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

“We’ve had several storms in the last year and we’ve had water intrusion events,” he said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to keep the water out.”

He explained that any time there is significant water on the floor, they cut away anything that could promote the growth of mold, including sheetrock, millwork, carpeting, and even paperwork.

“We did that at CMS,” Watson said adding that people might not be aware, but that at CMS a foot around the science rooms was removed and replaced.

Still, he said he was not aware of mold issues in the building.

Watson said custodians are trained in reviewing areas where there could be mold, including restrooms, under sinks, in classrooms, in teachers’ rooms and in the kitchen.

“This isn’t a new problem,” said PTA co president Jennifer Behette. “How did it get to this point? How did this become the crisis point?”

Dr. Jones said an engineering study had needed to be conducted, but that was not typically done on a yearly basis.

Mr. Watson said annual inspections do include the fire alarms, emergency lighting, fire suppression, and an annual review of the boiler system with the insurance company.

The district also discusses possible mold and air quality with teachers, staff, the head custodian and school nurse in each school annually.

“We certainly aren’t looking behind walls. We’re not looking at steel structures unless there is a concern for it,” Watson added.

Jones said beside the crack monitors being installed to keep track of whether the cracks were widening, she had reached out to the engineers who had worked on the master plan.

“At that same time, in last year’s budget we were requesting the money to study the building. It’s greater than what an inspection would have been,” she said. “It was not funded in the regular budget last year. Once we were able to access that American Rescue Plan money, it was one of the top priorities we took to the BOE finance committee.”

When parents asked how they could help, Jones suggested they stay engaged.

“One thing there has been a lot of discussion about is that we don’t do-long term financing here in Greenwich, which is very different,” Jones said. “Most districts with a large capital plan tend to do long term financing, and that’s how they keep their buildings in shape.”

“Having some good, robust conversations about how we could finance the magnitude of the work that has to happen in Greenwich, especially because we do have some elementary schools coming up – as well as CMS – that are not ADA accessible and have some pretty major issues. They are 100 years old.”

Jones said she anticipated communicating an update with CMS families toward the end of vacation week.

Scaffolding at Central Middle School. Feb 9, 2022
Central Middle School. Feb 9, 2022
Central Middle School. Feb 9, 2022
Central Middle School. Feb 9, 2022
Central Middle School. Feb 9, 2022