Stamford school officials grapple with short-term plans for schools deemed in need of replacement

Photo of Ignacio Laguarda
Westhill High School, 125 Roxbury Road in Stamford, Connecticut is photographed on Feb. 12, 2020.

Westhill High School, 125 Roxbury Road in Stamford, Connecticut is photographed on Feb. 12, 2020.

Matthew Brown / Hearst Connecticut Media

STAMFORD — Stamford school officials have identified five school buildings they say should be torn down and replaced. An immediate question before them now is how much to spend on those buildings to keep them habitable before replacement becomes reality.

According to administration estimates, completing five school replacement projects could cost hundreds of millions and take 25 or so years in total, assuming the projects are not done concurrently.

The school district is examining the possibility of using alternative “swing” spaces to house certain schools while construction is ongoing, but no timetable or actual details have been determined.

The plan to rebuild the five schools — Toquam, Hart and Roxbury elementary schools, Cloonan Middle School and Westhill High School — was a priority last year and early in 2020. But the problem has not been discussed much at all since March, when the outbreak of COVID-19 caused school buildings to shut down and overwhelmed the district’s budget.

But the issue is back again, now that the school system has launched a new committee — dubbed the Long-Term School Facilities Committee — to come up with a plan. That committee met for the first time this month. But it appears to be far from answering questions about the future of the buildings — which has raised difficult questions about their immediate needs and could be complicating planning across the district.

Kevin McCarthy, a facilities manager with the Stamford Asset Management Group, which oversees control of school buildings, gave a presentation this week to the Stamford Board of Education about short-term and long-term capital projects slated to be completed at all Stamford schools.

School Board Member Jackie Heftman noticed that the five schools on the demolition list were not nearly as well represented as other buildings, particularly in the “Priority 1” category, which are the projects slated to be completed first.

“Other than Roxbury with their exterior door replacement, I don’t see anything in the priority one section that addresses any of the issues we have at the five schools that were identified,” she said.

McCarthy answered, “That was on purpose.”

He said, “I can’t commit to spending a lot of money on those schools not knowing what the long-term facilities planning process is going to take us,” he said.

Heftman said her concern is that the capital budget request has to go in prior to knowing what the long-range plan is, and what work to do at the five schools.

“So that puts us another year down the road unless there is some commitment from the city that there is going to be separate bonding money or some separate stream of funding to address the issues in these five schools,” she said. “I don’t know how in good conscience we can not have anything on the priority one list.”

Heftman added, “I don’t know what we say to these people that are in the schools and know that they need to have some work.”

Cindy Grafstein, another member of the Stamford Asset Management Group, said the Long-Term School Facilities Committee will start to answer questions once it amasses more information.

“Does it make sense to actually invest multi-million dollars into a school like Westhill or does it make more sense to rebuild completely?” Grafstein said.

Some of the identified buildings might not need to be demolished if the outside structure is deemed acceptable, which will be decided after a vendor is brought on to assess all of the district’s schools, she said.

A request for proposals could be sent out “in months” to get a vendor, Grafstein said.

On Tuesday, McCarthy presented a list of work needed at each of the five schools.

At Westhill, under “Major Work Needed,” McCarthy included the replacement of air handlers and unit ventilators in the school, a project that could cost up to $5 million if the district decides to do the work.

The school has three main HVAC systems that include 85 unit ventilators that sit under windows and a 1960s-era air handler system that services the inner core of the building, as well as the auditorium, gym and other rooms.

Hart, Roxbury and Cloonan need new boilers, rooftop air handlers and a new chiller, among other issues.

At Toquam, projects totaled roughly $10 million to get major issues at the school fixed. Those included fixing foundation window and brick leaks, and installing a new HVAC system and generator.

But McCarthy didn’t recommend doing the work.

“In my opinion, it’s not worth it,” he said.

He said to get Toquam back to an acceptable level, it would take a project comparable to the $25 million spent at Westover Magnet Elementary School to clean out massive mold growth at that building.

“Toquam, at a minimum, needs the same thing,” he said. “It needs significant work.”