Agassiz could get $2 million for repairs

December 18, 2009
By

David Taber

SOUTH ST. AREA—City officials announced at a Boston City Council hearing last week that they plan to request that $2 million be put in the city’s 2011 capital budget for maintenance at the Louis Agassiz Elementary School at 20 Child St.

David Gallogly of the city Division of Capital Construction announced the capital funding proposal during the second session of a Boston City Council Education Committee hearing on indoor air quality at the Agassiz, convened in the auditorium of the school Dec. 10.

The first session of the hearing took place at the school last spring. City Councilor Chuck Turner, who put forward the hearing order, said it was reconvened to review an independent report on the school from the state Department of Public Health’s Indoor Air Quality Program, completed in September. He said the committee also wanted to compare the state’s findings with Boston Public Schools and city Public Facilities Department claims about the condition of the building. Capital Construction is part of Public Facilities.

The state report found that over-all air circulation in the building was
within acceptable parameters. Only six of the 71 rooms the state tested had carbon dioxide levels over 800 parts per million (ppm), said Michael Feeney, director of the state’s Indoor Air Quality Program. That level of air circulation means it is unlikely that mold spores or other irritants are significantly affecting the health of the school population.

“The vent system exchanges air very well,” he said.

Lisa Evans, a longtime teacher at the school who was transferred this year consistently claimed that the building was making her sick. She said at the hearing that her classroom was one of the six where the carbon dioxide levels were over 800 ppm. She doubted the usefulness of the state study, because testing was conducted when the classrooms were empty.

Evans and local City Councilor John Tobin both suggested that it might be worthwhile to look at tearing down the existing Agassiz building and constructing a new school. In addition to air quality concerns, Evans noted that the Agassiz, built in the 1970s has many “open classrooms” constructed without full walls dividing them from neighboring classrooms, making for a distracting learning environment.

Turner, Tobin and at-large City Councilor John Connolly, who heads the Education Committee, attended the hearing.

Gallogly said the $2 million would mostly be put toward realigning the school building’s large exterior wall panels—many of which have slipped out of place, some of which are beginning to bow out from the structure—and to re-pointing the building envelope.

The re-pointing is essentially resealing all the seams on the exterior of the building. That plus an $850,000 window replacement scheduled to begin this month should fix the leaks in the school’s exterior, and improve the building’s energy efficiency, Gallogly said.

The school’s roof is also scheduled for repair in the next few years. Roofs have a 12- to 15-year lifespan, he said.

Physical education teacher Nia Burke reported there were 12 leaks in the ceiling of the school’s gymnasium during rains the day before the Dec. 10 hearing at the school.

Khadijah Brown from the Boston Public Schools facilities department said it is likely the leaks in the gym ceiling are from windows in a wall where the one-story gym attaches to the two-story school building. The replacement of the windows in that section of the building should deal with the problem, she said.

Gallogly said the city would continue to look into other concerns brought up in a recent state Department of Public Health examination of indoor air quality at the school. That report, written by Mike Feeney, director of the department’s Indoor Air Quality program, found issues with the building’s insulation.

While the report said the temperature inside the building is within acceptable norms, readings in the walls taken at various points last year fluctuated from below freezing to around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, Feeney said at the hearing.

He said he suspects the problem is that wire mesh used to secure the insulation in the walls is acting as a “thermal bridge”—bringing cold air into the building.

Gallogly said the installation of insulated windows should deal with some the “thermal bridge” problem. But, presuming the school maintenance is funded in next year’s capital budget, the contractor hired to do the improvements will look into the concerns about the walls identified in the state report. If the state findings are confirmed, fixing the insulation would be added to that project.

The state study also found that some parts of the roof do not have adequate drainage. Feeney said some parts of the roof he would have expected to be sloped are not. “I was surprised at how few drains there are,” he said.

Tobin, who has in the past suggested leveling the current structure might be the way to go, brought that up again at the hearing.

He thanked Evans, Burke and others for their continued advocacy. “Clearly a case has been made…that something needs to be done here,” he said. “Our job is to come up with the money…And also to be aware of the price tag.”

Noting that over $10 million was invested in replacing the school’s roof and HVAC system in the 1990s, “I don’t want to be back in two or three years,” he said.

“Does it make sense to do that, or do what Lisa said, and build a new school?” he said.

There was at least one unresolved “discrepancy” between the city and state descriptions of conditions at the Agassiz, Turner said. City officials claimed that drip pans affixed to all of the “fan coil” heating and cooling units in classrooms were effectively capturing and siphoning off condensation that accumulated on the units in the summer. But Feeney said there are un-insulated parts of the units where condensation is building up that are beyond the reach of the drip pans.

At the close of the hearing, Turner recommended one more “informal” Education Committee hearing in the spring to review the evolution of the city’s proposed repair plans for the school. The informal hearing will be announced on the city council web site, but will be “more of a roundtable discussion” than formal hearings, where councilors solicit testimony and ask questions, Turner told the Gazette.

Correction: The print and on-line versions of this story formerly indicated that $2 million proposed to the Agassiz School would be part of the Fiscal Year 2011 city capital budget. The funding was to be included in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget.

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