Westbrook middle-school students to return to Wescott, for now

WESTBROOK – Westbrook middle-school students will return to Wescott Junior High School Monday instead of attending the new school on Stroudwater Street, as originally planned.

Superintendent Reza Namin made the executive decision Tuesday to have students remain at Wescott until the new middle school is completely finished. He said teachers won’t unpack all of their supplies, but will make do with what they have until officials are comfortable signing off on the building.

“There will be some inconveniences, but it’s the best option we have,” Namin said Tuesday.

The steering committee unanimously accepted Namin’s plan Tuesday afternoon.

During the past two weeks, members of the middle school steering committee, school officials and representatives from Harvey Construction and architect Harriman Associates met repeatedly for updates on the progress of the school’s completion and to hash out a plan for students coming back from their break.

At a meeting Monday, they agreed for the first time that having students start school at the new building on Monday, Jan. 4, would not be a viable option. A second solution, to delay the opening by one day, also appeared to be highly unlikely. Even a week-long postponement, many said, seemed like it would only work in a best-case scenario. The steering committee came to no final decision Monday.

The $34-million, 135,000-square-foot school was approved by voters in 2007 and scheduled to open for students on Jan. 4. A certificate of occupancy was supposed to be issued on Dec. 15, but city inspectors said there was still unfinished electrical and plumbing work at the time. That delay forced the dedication of the school, scheduled for Dec. 19, to be postponed indefinitely.

Though the construction company ramped up its efforts in the past couple of weeks, the building still hadn’t passed inspection Monday. Verification that the sewer pump transmitter was working and a connection between the auditorium’s emergency lighting and the fire alarm system were among the incomplete items this week.

Frustrations flared up at the meeting Monday when it became clear that there was no apparent solution to the problem of getting kids back to school.

“It’s like death by a thousand pinpricks,” School Committee Chairman Greg Smith said about the tedious process and continuous delays in making a decision about what to do with the some 600 students.

Though Smith said it seemed feasible for the school to be held at Wescott Junior High for one week without teachers unpacking all their supplies, doing that for two weeks would be too hard. But if the steering committee decided the school would open on Jan. 11, it would be imperative that date was met, committee members agreed.

With the amount of unknowns still on the table, including the fact that inspectors had yet to issue a certificate of occupancy Monday, some said they’d rather postpone the opening indefinitely and completely move back into the old junior high.

“Why don’t we just bite the bullet?” said Arnie Gaudet, a member of the building committee. “Rushing people doing things causes mistakes.”

“I’m not comfortable at this point even trying to project what a reasonable date would be,” Smith said.

Architect Dan Cecil said he’d be surprised if students couldn’t move in on Jan. 11 and shocked if the school wasn’t ready on Jan. 18.

Currently, the contents of teachers’ classrooms are sitting in moving vans, packed in boxes that are labeled according to where they should go in the new school. To have to unpack them and figure out where they would belong at Wescott would be “a logistical nightmare,” said Principal Brian Mazjanis.

In addition, Mazjanis said, teachers would need time to unpack the boxes and time to repack them once the new school is ready, and he already used up all of their professional development days to pack the supplies the first time.

City Councilor John O’Hara, co-chairman of the steering committee, said he thought it would be better to move students into the new school, even if everything isn’t finished, rather than put them back into the old school.

Cecil suggested asking the city inspectors to issue a partial certificate of occupancy and seal off the auditorium, where a connection between the emergency lighting and the fire alarm system is one of the main hurdles holding back the building’s completion.

The new Westbrook Middle School will not be opened Jan. 4 as planned. Instead, students returning from winter vacation will go back to Wescott Junior High until the new building is ready. (Staff photo by Leslie Bridgers)