New Milford mayor declares disaster emergency amid ‘nonstop’ effort to repair high school after fire

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

NEW MILFORD — Following last week’s fire that damaged the roof and interior of New Milford High School, Mayor Pete Bass has declared a local disaster emergency.

The declaration allows the town to expedite the repair of the roof, and everything that may be involved, Bass said. Time is of the essence. Already, the town anticipates buying 50 portable classrooms because some rooms won’t be ready to be occupied by the fall.

“With this declaration, we're able to look at the insurance claims, arranging contractor contracts, terminations or interventions, leasing or purchasing equipment — doing this all much more quickly than we would be able to do if we had to go through the normal process,” Bass said. “Also, (when it comes to) placing temporary classrooms and structures, and also working with boards and other town agencies because of the fire — to do it in a faster process.”

The emergency declaration comes after a large fire broke out July 5 on the New Milford High School roof, causing six firefighters to suffer from smoke inhalation.

As a result of the damage caused by the fire, the work on the roof will now be a “full-blown renovation” of part of the high school, Bass said.

“It's going to be a much more complex project than it was for just a roof, which is going to require lots of moving parts,” he said, adding the goal is returning students back to school.

At Thursday’s Municipal Building Committee meeting, tempers flared as town officials strongly reprimanded representatives from United Roofing & Sheet Metal, Inc. in Brookfield — the contractors performing the roof work. This is the second fire at the high school — the first one, in December, started when fiberglass insulation caught fire as workers from United Roofing used a torch, officials have said. The fire marshal hasn’t determined the cause of last week’s fire.

The town has not decided if it will continue to work with the roofing contractor.

At Monday's Town Council meeting, Bass said the town must decide quickly regarding the roof, including “filing, perfecting insurance claims, arranging for contractor termination and intervention, leasing or purchasing, and placing temporary classrooms or other structures, and seeking available grants and financing vehicles ... until the high school building is fully habitable for all educational and school related purposes.”

The state of emergency will remain in effect until further notice.

Roof restoration

Belfor, a disaster recovery company, is performing the restoration work.

“They've been going pretty much nonstop since really the night of the fire,” Bass said. “Some of the stuff that they've done, first and foremost, is to make sure that summer school was up and running.”

This includes installing air conditioners at Northville Elementary School so summer school could start Monday.

Additionally, all contents, horizontal surfaces and floors were cleaned in the cafeteria. Student desks have been cleaned, stored and covered in plastic. Exterior glass cleanup was completed on the rear of the building by the main entrance.

Public Works Director Jack Healy said the school’s emergency panel, sprinkler systems, electrical circuitry elevators, and elevators are all being inspected and repaired.

School start date

Healy said several classes won't be ready by the fall and the school may set up portable classrooms that come equipped with “many” bathrooms, a cleaning closet, air conditioner, and heat pump system for temperature and climate control.

“These portable classrooms are very well designed and put together,” he said.

He, the fire marshal and building official met last week with a representative about the portable classrooms.

“What we're doing is going back and forth on the design,” he said. “We will take 50 classrooms.”

In an email sent to parents on Tuesday, the superintendent said Belfor is assessing classrooms that will be accessible for the start of the school year and continuing with the restoration of the classroom areas.

Additionally, CIRMA, the town’s insurer, is itemizing items and materials for repair and/or replacement.

“This includes technology and items such as desks and curriculum materials,” Superintendent Alisha DiCorpo wrote.

Many specifics as to exactly where students will be learning on Aug. 25, the scheduled first day of school, is still not known at this time.

“How we begin the school year will be dependent on the number of classrooms and spaces within the school that are available to us and we are researching additional ways for students to access their learning in person,” DiCorpo said. “As Belfor continues to make progress with its assessment and remediation efforts, we should have more of an indication of how to effectively plan and order what is necessary to begin school.”

The timeline Belfor presented to the Municipal Building Committee could be anywhere from two to four weeks from the start of school, she wrote.

Air quality testing is being conducted, and therefore access to the building is not allowed for safety reasons.

“Everyone needs to pull together to make this work, to make it so that we can get the kids back into the high school,” Bass said.

A meeting of the Board of Education was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Schaghticoke Middle School Library. Officials were expected to present a slideshow with pictures of the damage and remediation, discuss summer programming, and update attendees on what has been done so far.

A virtual Town Hall meeting is set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in conjunction with the town to discuss the project. Members of the Board of Education and the town will be at the meeting and will answer questions.

“These virtual Town Hall meetings are planned to be regularly scheduled every two weeks as we prepare for the start of the 2022-2023 school year,” is set for 7 p.m. at the E. Paul Martin Room at Town Hall, where the roof damage will be discussed.