District lays out emergency procedures if high school fails

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What happens to students when high school systems fail?

By Bryon Rivers | We Are Pentucket

It’s not every day the superintendent of schools walks in to a School Committee meeting towing a 4-foot section of corroded cast iron pipe.

If the sight of the pipe itself – innards coated in an assortment of rusty splotches and lumpy deposits – wasn’t enough to get everyone’s attention, the reason for its presence quickly did the job.

Crumbling buildings, imminent issues

“We need to have a contingency plan,” explained Dr. Justin Bartholomew (better known throughout the district as Dr. Bart), as he addressed the committee members. “I brought some visuals so you could understand what we’re facing.”

The high school’s electrical, plumbing and heating systems — which largely date back to the original 1956 construction — are in “imminent danger of failing,” according to Dr. Bart and independent experts who have evaluated the situation. If any of these systems fail, the district would need to redistribute students and teachers to other schools throughout the remediation process.

At present, the heating system is in the worst condition.

 “This is not if … this is a matter of when the heating system does fail,” said Dr. Bart. Boilers, heat exchangers and other portions of the HVAC system are so outdated that replacement parts are no longer available, and newer parts cannot be safely retrofitted. In some cases they are simply not operational.

Such a failure would likely cost the school district in excess of $10 million (per system). On top of that, taxpayers in the district would need to cover all costs associated with relocating students — from transportation costs to building upgrades and even new staff hires.

Emergency procedures

Doctor Bart cited numerous infrastructure failures across the district that have caused school cancellations and/or relocations over the past 10 years, including last year’s displacement of Page students to Merrimac school.

If one or more systems fail at the high school, what would the contingency plan look like?

Depending on the emergency, and how long it takes to repair, one of two situations would likely play out, according to Dr. Bart. He and his administrative team have been extensively exploring the options that would put the smallest burden possible on parents, students and educators.

Regardless of their efforts, both plans would still be expensive.

“It’s the cost to accommodate this wacky ‘Plan B’ scenario. It’s not just the cost to fix the high school,” Dr. Bart said.

Scenario #1: Short-Term Reassignment

Middle school students would be sent to one or more elementary schools in their hometowns, and high school students would move into the middle school.

High School students and teachers would experience some downsizing and a loss or reduction of educational programming. Spaces such as the auditorium, media center and offices would need to be re-purposed into classroom space.

For middle schoolers, their families, and teachers (as well as the schools they would attend) the change would be more dramatic and/or expensive.

  • Middle schoolers who attend programs at the High School would no longer have that option.

  • Additional teachers (and salaries) would be required with classes spread out across three schools. 

  • A shift in bus schedules and routes would be necessary.

  • Middle schoolers would start school later and be forced into an elementary school schedule.

  • K-8 students would ride the same busses and fill the same buildings, a concern for parents

Scenario #2: Long-Term Reassignment

This plan would also shift high schoolers to the middle school. Students in grades 7 and 8 would be relocated to another district school, causing a domino effect of student re-assignment:

  • PreK-Grade 1: Sweetsir Elementary, Merrimac

  • Grades 2-3: Donaghue Elementary, Merrimac

  • Grades 4-6: Bagnall Elementary,   Groveland

  • Grades 7-8: Page Elementary, West Newbury

The pros of the long-term plan include keeping students and teachers together at their existing grade levels, middle schoolers maintaining most of their special programming, and no mixing of middle and elementary school children.

Unfortunate cons include longer bus routes for some students, the need for more buses and drivers, as well as complications related to elementary school scheduling and geography that, says Dr. Bart, “just won’t feel right” to parents.

“I cannot imagine parents saying ‘Oh this is a great idea,’” he said. “From an academic standpoint this is the best option, but I’m a human as well.”

The plan may also require reworking the district’s definition of an “emergency” which would allow for such alterations.

How can we avoid these scenarios?

Residents across the district in Groveland, Merrimac and West Newbury will have the opportunity in May to approve funding to build a brand-new school building for grades 7-12. Through an extensive fact-finding process, the district discovered that repairing the high school and middle school buildings would actually be more expensive than simply building a new one. Both structures have long surpassed their life expectancy.

Nancy Stewart