Long Unresolved Safety Issues Vex Mascoma School Officials

West Canaan — In 1997, before many current members of the student body even were born, the state Fire Marshal’s Office sent a letter to officials at Mascoma Valley Regional High School informing them that the building needed an automatic sprinkler system.

The letter gave the school two years to resolve the issue. The fire marshal wrote, in part, that without the sprinklers, “I will have no alternative other than to serve the school with an order to vacate all rooms that do not comply with code.”

Sixteen years later, school officials are no closer to resolving the state’s fire safety concerns than they were the day that letter was received.

And in the aftermath of yet another failed high school renovation proposal, administrators are once again trying to come up with a time line of how to address safety issues and a lack of space at Mascoma.

“Our job is to find a plan that addresses all the issues for kids that the whole community can get behind. That’s our challenge,” Superintendent Patrick Andrew said.

Most Upper Valley high schools have a sprinkler system. Exceptions are Oxbow Union High School and portions of Woodstock Union High School.

Typically, school administrators work closely with the local fire officials to ensure that school buildings comply with fire codes as best they can. Mascoma had pointed to this week’s failed renovation proposal, which was similar to one proposed last year, as evidence that the district has a plan to address deficiencies.

With another loss at the ballot box, however, Andrew and the School Board need a new plan and time line.

Canaan Fire Chief Bill Bellion has jurisdiction over the high school and he conducts yearly inspections. The building is fully equipped with alarms, Bellion said, has exit and emergency lighting, as well as back-up power, and there are fire extinguishers throughout. The school has an emergency plan on file with the fire department and also conducts monthly fire drills.

“I don’t want anyone to think that building isn’t safe or that we’re doing anything illegal,” Andrew said. “Is it as safe as it could be? No. But it’s not an unsafe building.”

Bellion and school officials met on Thursday to regroup. Because the high school is on well water, the building can’t simply hook up to a sprinkler system. The proposed renovation included installation of a 20,000 gallon storage tank that would have been hidden under the stage in the new auditorium.

Without voter approval, the school district doesn’t have money for the auditorium, the tank or anything else.

Bellion has put in a call to state fire officials for guidance. There is a possibility that the Fire Marshal’s Office could step in and order the school to install a sprinkler system immediately.

There is precedent in the Upper Valley for the state shuttering schools over safety concerns.

In July 2010, the state Board of Education voted to close Unity Elementary School. That August, voters agreed to fund short-term fire safety repairs to the existing school, as well as a proposal to build a new school.

Tom Schutzius, an investigator for the state Fire Marshal’s Office, said his agency was unlikely to step in unless asked to do so.

“At this point, the (Canaan) chief hasn’t requested anything from us. We’re not going to stick our nose in until the fire chief asks us to,” Schutzius said.

Bellion said he’s hoping that state officials can help him come up with a time schedule for when sprinklers must be added to the building.

“We could put in a sprinkler system and do only that,” Andrew said. “But you’ll have a sprinkled school that doesn’t meet all other needs. But that may be what we need to do.”

The high school also has a warning on its accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. In a 2011 letter , the school was told that the association was concerned about the lack of progress with the “unresolved facilities issues.” The letter also said that it “would be appropriate for the commission to give due consideration to placing the school on probation.”

After last year’s renovation proposal failed, the School Board chose to put a nearly identical renovation before the voters this year. This year the proposal received 59.3 percent support — just 22 votes shy of the required 60 percent supermajority. The deadline to ask for a recount is Tuesday.

Residents who opposed the renovation, often on grounds that it would be too expensive for tax payers, are urging School Board members to compromise if they want to pass a plan the next time.

David L. Stewart, 56, said he understands that many of the proposals in the renovation are necessary, like a new boiler system, sprinklers and larger science labs. But the School Board needs to scale back its plans.

“The message should have gotten through to the policy makers that we can’t afford this, so come up with something that we can afford,” Stewart said.

The tax impact is not a vacuum, Stewart said, because residents also have to deal with increases at the town, state and federal levels. Stewart, a painting contractor, said many people he knows have had difficulty finding work. He added that he thinks many of the people who support the renovation are out of touch with the finances of their neighbors.

Julie DeCamp, of Enfield, has a 14-year-old daughter at Mascoma High, but voted against the renovation this week because she thought the auditorium was too extravagant. She was also frustrated that the school district didn’t provide cost estimates for the tax impact.

She said she thinks teachers deserve their own classrooms and shouldn’t have to push around carts with supplies around the halls, but she called the auditorium unnecessary.

“I am willing to vote for something that is logical,” DeCamp said.

Jeremy Olson, of Grafton, is the chairman of the Mascoma Valley Taxpayers Union, which was formed last year to oppose the renovation proposal. The group sent out fliers both years, and even went as far as going door-to-door in Dorchester . The group is against raising taxes, Olson said, but if the School Board comes back with a smaller proposal that addresses only “emergency stuff,” then maybe the union would get behind that.

“If they come back with something just as big or larger, we’re going to be against that,” Olson said.

The School Board meets on Tuesday, but several School Board members have already said they want to bring a renovation plan before voters again, though the size and scope the proposal is another question.

School Board member Wayne Morrison, of Canaan, said he’d like to bring the same proposal before voters again and doesn’t feel anything should be cut.

Board members Cookie Hebert, of Dorchester, and Brewster Gove, of Grafton, also said they want to bring the renovation plan back in some form. First, however, they want to talk with some of the 40.7 percent of voters who voted no and learn what can be done to win their support.

“If we do bring it back up, we need to know what people are disgruntled about,” Gove said. “Is it too expensive? Is it the taxes? Is it the auditorium? What’s the problem?”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.