Windham Northeast Supervisory Union superintendent Andy Haas sits in his office in Bellows Falls.
Robert F. Smith/The Commons
Windham Northeast Supervisory Union superintendent Andy Haas sits in his office in Bellows Falls.

At BFUHS, a flurry of construction on a building with ‘lots of life’

Classes may be ending, but work on the classrooms has just begun. The school will start next year with a new roof, new science labs, and more clarity on how to address the PCBs contaminating the 1971 building.

WESTMINSTER-As the school year ends and summer break begins, Bellows Falls Union High School (BFUHS) has $9 million in major projects in the works over the coming months.

Four of the projects on the 53-year-old building are interrelated, and coordinating them for the best use of time and resources will require deft planning.

Windham Northeast Superintendent Andrew Haas says the supervisory union is up to the task and is blessed with an experienced construction manager in Steve Horton, who has decades of experience in dealing with these issues.

An updated science wing

Topping the list of projects is the recent school board approval to use $2 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds (ESSER) for a full renovation of the school's science wing.

These federal funds were made available to K–12 schools through the March 2020 Education Stabilization Act, passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

ESSER funds could be used for teacher training, professional development, the hiring of educators and support staff, or, as in this case, investing in educational technology that supports science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs.

The $190 billion funding program ends soon, and schools must have committed to use the funds by this September. Extensions may be possible in some cases, Haas said.

After two years of planning, the science wing renovation is long overdue, Haas said.

"The science lab was so dilapidated that both water and gas to the labs had been turned off. There were literally no functioning lab stations in the school."

The science wing of the school will be gutted, and the famously open concept building will have actual walls in its first section instead of movable partitions. Permanent walls are the most economical way to install the necessary water, gas, and electrical lines for the labs. Haas said that science department faculty were involved in the design process.

The finished space will include chemistry, physics, and biology labs, along with a multiuse area that can be adapted for a number of functions as needed by the school. The remodel also includes new furniture and cabinetry.

The goal is to start the project as soon as school ends this month and complete it by the end of September, with the new wing in use after Christmas break at the latest.

This will also be the first area of the school to feature keyless entry doors with swipe cards. Heightened security measures will also include the ability to lock down the entire wing with the simple swipe of a card, as opposed to having to lock individual doors.

Haas said Saxtons River Elementary and Westminster Center School are also respectively working on new school offices and entrances this year, which will also incorporate higher levels of building security.

New roof, HVAC system

BFUHS's second major project is installing a new roof, and work on that has already begun. This is a $2 million project that is locally bonded.

Work has started on the roof above the auditorium and gymnasium areas, where construction noise is less disruptive, and will move to classroom areas once school is out for summer break.

In addition to the new roof, $5 million in new HVAC equipment - also from the ESSER funds - is being installed at the high school.

The new HVAC units "are enormous," Haas said, but they will require very little change to the existing interior ductwork.

PCB mitigation

While all these projects need to be coordinated, as each affects the others, one other complicating factor in the renovation is the lingering problem of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination, which has been of major concern throughout the school year.

Test results in August 2023 led to limited use of the school's auditorium and gymnasium after some areas of the school contained immediate action levels of PCBs, highly carcinogenic chemical compounds that were banned in the United States in 1976.

The school building, which opened in 1971, contains materials such as mastic, glue, paint, caulk, fire retardant on structural metal, and similar products, all of which likely used PCBs.

A wood floor installed in the gym in 1993 may also be a factor.

The school is awaiting the latest results of quarterly source testing for PCBs. This latest round of testing is intended to pinpoint the most likely sources of contamination.

Haas says that studies have likely already identified the main sources of the contamination, and he expects those results to be verified by the June tests.

A fire retardant used on structural steel girders in the building's walls is being viewed as a likely PCB source, as is paint on the underside of the gym's corrugated steel roof decking.

In both cases, the PCBs have migrated. In the case of the steel girders, the chemicals were introduced in the flame retardant but have leached into the concrete blocks around the girders.

In the case of the roof decking, Haas said that the PCBs have migrated from the underside through to the top of the steel roofing.

PCBs are mitigated either by removing the material entirely or encapsulating it in another, safer material. What will be done with the concrete block will be determined based on the results of the latest testing.

Haas says he is already fairly certain that workers will have to take more extreme measures with the gym roof.

"We're almost positive the roofing there is going to have to be removed and replaced," he said, and added he is thankful to have Horton overseeing all of these very complex and interrelated projects.

Haas said that the combination of these measures will not only achieve the necessary improvements to the building but will also mitigate the PCB issue for future use of the school.

Tennis court repairs

One other major project at BFUHS has also been approved: The high school's tennis courts at Hadley Field will be rebuilt by Vermont Recreational Surfacing & Fencing, whose $54,657 bid was unanimously accepted by the BFUHS Board in mid-May.

Haas said the courts have been offline for at least three years, which has required the school's tennis teams to use other facilities and has prevented them from hosting any tournaments.

But rebuilding the courts will require an extended stretch of dry weather, and Haas knows there is no guarantee that favorable conditions will coincide with the construction company's availability in order to finish the courts this year.

A 'lot of life' left in school building

Haas noted there has been "no indication of [PCB] having caused any health issues" for students or teachers in the over half-century the school has been ns use.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires that the PCB issue be resolved, and Haas feels it will be done by a combination of removing or encapsulating the contaminated materials and deploying the upgraded ventilation system.

"We don't have an end date on the PCB issue," Haas said. "We're going to find the best way to remediate the problem."

The plan could take five years, he said, or it could be ongoing, in which case the school will test regularly and respond accordingly.

Since the initial testing, quarterly assessments have shown lower levels of PCBs, and indicate that weather is also a factor in the readings.

Despite public speculation when PCB levels were first measured in the school, Haas said that none of the experts or consultants involved in remediating the PCB issue "has suggested taking down any part" of the BFUHS facility.

There is "no danger" of that extreme response, he said.

"There's still a lot of life in that building," Haas said.

This News item by Robert F. Smith was written for The Commons.

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