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Fairchild flaws called cosmetic

December 24, 2018 GMT

BRIDGEPORT — Cracks found in the stairwells and roof of the Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Magnet Schools complex are cosmetic in nature and shouldn’t prevent the school board from signing off on the project.

So says School Board Chairman John Weldon, who went with several other board members to inspect the school complex on Friday.

“My understanding is that the building’s structural integrity has not been compromised, but that the types of defects present are those that could get worse over time if not properly addressed,” Weldon said. “I don’t think it is something that should stall approval of the building to allow the City to obtain its reimbursement from the state for it.”

The Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Magnet School complex has been opened and occupied for five years. Still, the project has yet to be signed off by the school board which is required for the state to release the final $5 million in bond money to the city.

City officials blame the protracted delay on the state. Largely at the urging of City Finance Director Ken Flatto, the matter was finally presented to the school board last month. Chris Taylor, a board member and chairman of the board’s facilities committee, demanded to inspect the facility first. He did not like what he saw. On a tour, he found cracks in some stairwells and problems on the roof that he called concerning. That prompted the full board to take a look before authorizing a sign off.

Weldon said it appears many of the defects observed are cosmetic in nature due to settling of the building which is set into a hilly, undeveloped wooded area.

After consulting with Schools Superintendent Aresta Johnson, Weldon suggested the issues found at Fairchild will be placed high on as a priority on the district’s upcoming capital plan.

Whether Fairchild’s flaws are a matter of workmanship or maintenance, it some city officials worried that the wrong message is being sent to a state poised to invest heavily in another $115 million city school building project.

“Who is responsible,” City Council President Aidee Nieves said, telling city’s School Building Committee last week that there needs to be a clearer line drawn between who needs to do what once a school building project is complete. “We can’t be held back $5 million when we just bonded $20 million for another school. We don’t know if the state is looking at that stuff.”

A new Bassick is said to be one of only eight projects on the priority bonding list headed to the new governor and legislature when the session opens in February 2019.

The $20 million in bonding money authorized by the council last month will cover such things as the architectural work on the new school.

John Ricci, public facilities chief for the city, told the school building committee that his staff too believes the flaws in Fairchild to be more a matter of wear and tear than major construction issues.

“Anyone can walk through a building, see a settlement crack and say ‘Oh, faulty construction,’” Ricci said. “If we were told about that problem two months ago it would be caulked, painted and you’d never see it.”

Larry Schilling, a school construction liaison for the city, said there is a minimum one-year warrantee on all new construction, longer for major pieces of equipment and 20 years for the roof. He said he meets with Alan Wallack, the school board’s facilities liaison every two weeks to address building issues.

All issues brought to their attention have been addressed, Schilling said.

Christina Smith, a city council member and chair of the school building committee who has a background in architecture, urged more pro-activity when it comes to maintenance.

Wallack said the state is putting provisions into new school bonding projects which requires the school board to allocate enough dollars to make sure the structure is properly maintained. He said the school board annually sends a ranked capitol priority list to the council. Chronic budget cuts led last year to a heavy reduction in school maintenance staff.

Flatto told the committee that it will take six months to a year after the school board agrees to sign off for the city to get its final reimbursement. Because it was an inter-district magnet school, the state funded 95 percent of the $126.8 million project.

At Flatto’s urging, other completed school building projects will also be making their way to the school board for sign off in the coming months, including the Discovery Magnet School which was completed before Fairchild, in 2011.