PAWTUCKET – After a nearly week’s delay caused by a failed backup battery for the fire alarm system, the new $49 million Winters Elementary School was officially set to open to students Tuesday.
According to the School Committee, the fire alarm system is functioning, but the battery that would operate the system in the event the school lost power did not hold a full charge and died 40 hours into a 60-hour test of the system. A second test was scheduled for this past weekend and on Saturday, Sept. 3, Supt. Cheryl McWilliams announced that the district received a certificate of occupancy and was able to accept students after the long Labor Day weekend.
“Thank you to our School Committee, city officials, we are grateful to all stakeholders for their partnership,” McWilliams wrote. “We are so excited for the Winters community about their first day, Tuesday. We are ready to move forward together to have a great school year in this brand new, state-of-the-art elementary school, and next on to Baldwin.”
McWilliams and school board members attended a walkthrough of the school on Aug. 29. At that time, Gilbane and Colliers workers assured them the building would be ready for the first day of school, and that construction materials remaining in hallways, classrooms, and the cafeteria would be cleared out before students arrived.
“We were told on that walkthrough that we were ready to go,” School Committee Chairperson Erin Dube said, speaking after the emergency meeting.
Dube said she does not feel blame should be placed on Gilbane or Colliers. Project representatives emphasized during an emergency meeting last Wednesday, Aug. 31, that they had never before experienced this type of battery test failure.
“It’s why it was never even presented as a possibility,” Dube said. “In addition, even when the test did fail, I thought that very reasonable options were presented. They were options the administration and our facility chairperson throughout as options to possibly get kids in school while we’re running this backup battery test.”
The inspection was scheduled for last Tuesday to give the contractors as much time as possible to complete the work. School Committee members said that after the initial battery test failed last week, they spent two hours proposing ways to receive a temporary certificate of occupancy and prevent delaying the first day of school. Suggestions included evacuating students from the building in the event of a power outage, placing a generator on site to ensure the school would not lose power, or paying for a fire watch. However, these ideas weren’t accepted by the city’s building inspector.
“... All of those options were discussed,” facilities subcommittee Chairperson Gerard Charbonneau added. “I asked our experts if those were feasible and reasonable options. We all agreed they were. They were brought to the city, and they were rejected.”
While landscaping and exterior work, among other items, are planned to continue over the coming weeks this will not prevent students from accessing their classrooms and attending starting this week. The building inspector noted several items needed to be addressed following the original Aug. 30 inspection, including:
• The smoke/fire doors need to have the magnet drops installed.
• Fire extinguishers were needed in classroom cabinets.
• Detection devices needed to be tested but could not be done due to several areas still having construction being done and the dust caps could not be removed.
• Temporary stairs were in use at some exit discharges.
• A “very large amount of combustibles” were in the southwest exit passageway.
• A complete fire alarm test could not be completed because the elevator shaft was not accessible.
• Penetrations into the stair enclosures needed to be filled.
• Doors that open to the roof needed “Not An Exit” signage.
• There needed to be a clear safe passage from the parking lot and bus drop to and from the school.
Asked about the items highlighted by the city building inspector, Charbonneau and Dube said these were all expected to be addressed between the day of the battery test and students’ arrival.
“All of those items that the building inspector indicated were items that were scheduled to be completed on Tuesday, and that was communicated to the building inspector,” he said. “Take the combustibles in the vestibule, for example. The vestibule was a holding area as they were cleaning out the upper floors of construction material. Everything was being stored in the vestibule and that was scheduled for pick up…”
After the delay was announced last week, Mayor Donald Grebien’s office released a statement saying a number of health and safety issues still needed to be addressed before opening. Grebien was critical of the last-minute announcement, saying he shared the frustration of Winters families regarding “the unacceptable lack of notice by the School Department.”
School Committee candidate Jennifer Carney told The Breeze she was “extremely disappointed in the late notice and lack of planning that affected” families. She said “everything comes down to the superintendent,” and the district should have communicated potential challenges to families. She also expressed disappointment with the “sparse” information included in the explanation to families.
James “Jim” Chellel Jr., a former member and current school board candidate, said he thought the schools “dropped the ball” by not having a back-up plan prepared to share with families, especially with the walk-through and safety test taking place the day before school was to start.
Charbonneau acknowledged it was unfortunate timing conducting the test so close to the first day of school, but said that it was an unforeseen system failure.
“Anyone who watched the meeting heard from probably 100 years of construction experience from our vendors, who are well-known major corporations across the country if not the world, say they’ve never seen one of these back up battery systems not hold a charge,” he said.
“If I were a parent there I would have some questions about the timing of this and the scheduling of this, obviously it’s not a good thing,” Tyler McFeeters, a candidate for School Committee, said. “For it to be the day before, the whole situation is unacceptable, but the timing to me is the most egregious.”
“It was a very frustrating day, and obviously to the Winters community it was heartbreaking to have this happen,” Dube said.