BARRE — Plans to use pandemic-related federal funding to upgrade the ventilation system at Spaulding High School would trigger the need to install a sprinkler system in the portion of the building that was constructed more than 55 years ago.
Maurice VanDemark, an assistant state fire marshal, shared that opinion Monday with members of the School Board’s facilities committee.
In fact, VanDemark said, the two-year-old renovation of the school’s library should technically have triggered the need to expand the sprinkler system from an addition that was built in 1996 throughout the original 90,000 square foot building.
That didn’t happen because, VanDemark said, the state Division of Fire Safety wasn’t made aware of the library renovation until after it was complete.
“We kind of let that go,” he said.
VanDemark acknowledged the school sought and obtained a state waiver from the sprinkler requirement when the addition, which includes Spaulding’s gymnasium, was built in 1996.
That open-ended variance was still valid in 2017 when state officials initially sought to require the expansion of the sprinkler system at Spaulding, but relented — saving the district what estimates at the time suggested would be an $800,000 expense.
The existence of the variance was the reason for the change of heart, though officials have continued to encourage expansion of the sprinkler system, which VanDemark told the committee would be required based on any major improvement to the building. He said that would include an upgrade to the school’s ventilation system or the renovation of the its auditorium. Both are projects that have been discussed and one — the ventilation upgrade — is expected to be financed with some of the money the district has or will receive from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund.
The ventilation project has been flagged as a priority as a result of the pandemic and while that work likely won’t start before next summer, committee members were told when it does there should be a concurrent plan to expand the sprinkler system.
Based on the 2016 estimate, Facilities Director Jamie Evans predicted the cost of expanding the sprinkler system had climbed to $1 million or more. Interim Superintendent Chris Hennessey has recommended the project be paid for with a portion of an estimated, $3.2 million surplus. It’s part of a broader plan to assign $2.4 million of the yet-to-be-audited fund balance to the district’s capital improvement fund.
The board hasn’t yet made that assignment, and some have questioned whether the sprinkler system would actually be required and, even if it was, whether using surplus money should be used to pay for it.
Board Chair Sonya Spaulding asked if federal infrastructure money might be available to pay for the sprinkler system and others wondered whether it could qualify for ESSER funding.
The committee didn’t get definitive answers to those questions and opted not to make a recommendation to the board at this time.
Members agreed the threshold question for the board — how much, if any, of the projected surplus should be assigned to the capital improvement fund — did not require selecting specific projects at this time. That said, they were told, the window for designing the system, soliciting bids and lining up contractors is closing if the plan is to complete the installation next year.
The committee was told Spaulding is the only school in the area that isn’t fully sprinklered — a fact that would have changed when the addition was built in 1996 had school officials been unable to persuade the state to grant the variance.
Hennessey suggested there could be some savings in pairing the sprinkler system expansion with the ventilation system upgrade, even as resident Terry Reil said he was troubled by extremely “rough estimates” that were being used.
“We’re talking about allocating a bunch of money based on … pretty pie-in-the-sky numbers,” Reil said. “We have a responsibility to true those up and get those a little closer so we truly understand the scope of this and what it’s going to cost.”