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Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue told the Board of Education at its meeting on Tuesday, October 3, that the newly formed transportation task force met for the first time on Friday, September 19.
While Dr Rodrigue said there have been improvements from the start of the school year, the task force will be focusing on “top priority” concerns and it will report its conclusions to the school board.
Board of Education members voiced approval of Dr Rodrigue’s proposal to form a task force to look at transportation at its meeting on September 19, when members of the public also voiced concerns. Since the start of the school year, concerns have been raised by members of the public at school board meetings regarding the reconfigured transportation system for the 2017-18 school year. No members of the public spoke at the October 3 meeting about transportation.
Dr Rodrigue also sent an e-mail to parents and staff the day before, October 2, with transportation updates.
In the e-mail, Dr Rodrigue shared the task force had been created “to review remaining issues with transportation.”
“The group,” the e-mail read, “comprised of parents, teachers, school leaders, Board of Education members, central office personnel, and [All-Star Transportation] staff, will work to resolve concerns related to transportation and determine a plan to address these. We have only scheduled five meetings, as we know there is a need for urgency in finding a solution.”
The task force’s final meeting of the five planned so far is slated for near the end of October. The task force is expected to share its conclusions with the school board, according to the district.
According to the e-mail, the first task force meeting had members discuss “concerns we are still dealing with across schools, particularly at the [kindergarten to sixth grade] level, and set priorities for our work. A few of the priority issues we will review include, but are not limited to, bus timeliness to schools in the [morning], length of rides for specific buses, and additional ‘wait’ time for students during elementary drop off and during [afternoon] dismissal (with shuttles). All of these areas have implications for both students and our school staff.”
The letter continued to thank members of the community for sharing thoughts, feedback, and concerns.
“We are confident that an appropriate solution will be found so that we can move forward and focus on what’s most important for our students — teaching and learning,” the e-mail read.
Dr Rodrigue told the school board that at the task force’s first meeting, they discussed what was felt to be the top transportation priority concerns. The task force is working in smaller subgroups to discuss strategies to address the top concerns, she added.
“There is a sense of urgency,” said Dr Rodrigue.
Frustrations And Improvements
Some of the major concerns, she shared, are buses being on time, student wait times at schools, and length of rides.
“These concerns were heard. They are our top priority,” Dr Rodrigue said. “That’s why we are meeting in subgroups to really look at a variety of ideas so that we can really put them to bed at this point, because our frustration level is your frustration level.”
Dr Rodrigue said issues with buses continue to improve. She said three buses “skirted in just at the bell” on October 3.
“We have a fleet of 55, so that is much better than the first week or two or three of school,” said Dr Rodrigue. “But it is not good enough for me and I think for many other parents.”
The interim superintendent also said she plans to continue to update parents about the task force as the work continues.
“We are not going to fix everything. We are looking at our top priority issues,” Dr Rodrigue said. “This was a big change so there will be things that changed from the year before.”
Board of Education Secretary Debbie Leidlein made a request that the task force look at ride times for public schools and other schools in town, to evaluate the number of buses, ridership, and ride times for all students.
After Board of Education member Dan Cruson, Jr, asked Dr Rodrigue about a specific overcrowding bus situation reported by a parent, Dr Rodrigue said several overcrowding situations have been reported.
“The minute I get that concern I go right over to All-Star and I want to see the video with All-Star, from the minute students get on to when they drop off students so that we know the whole ride,” said Dr Rodrigue. “Thus far, I think some of it is a perception where it seems more crowded.”
Bus drivers have also been instructed to “not pull out anywhere if there is a student on the floor.” She also said there should be no students sitting on the floor of buses with the number of students assigned to buses.
“There are seats for everyone,” said Dr Rodrigue, adding that there were some complaints of students not allowing others to sit with them.
On Monday, October 2, Dr Rodrigue said the buses “cleared” at 4:32 pm.
“I think that is the earliest we have cleared thus far, so the efficiency… it is really going well that way,” said Dr Rodrigue.
High School Auditorium
While an update at the meeting shared that construction is completed on the Newtown High School Auditorium Renovation Project, other aspects of the project caused concern for board members.
“Construction is completed,” said Public Building & Site Commission Chairman Bob Mitchell. “We are going through punch list items now. Some of it is extensive; mainly they are cosmetic, though. Painting left a lot to be desired.”
Newtown Public Schools Director of Visual and Performing Arts Michelle Hiscavich also presented the update for the school board, and Mr Mitchell said Ms Hiscavich has created her own punch list of items that need to be fixed.
Mr Mitchell said the painting contractor “wasn’t the best in the world. Unfortunately we were stuck with the low bid.” Mr Mitchell also said the construction management firm, Newfield Construction Inc, has been authorized to hire another painting contractor and back-charge the original painter.
Earlier on Tuesday, Ms Hiscavich and Mr Mitchell said that the curtains for the stage were being installed.
A September 20 report from the project management firm STV/DPM reads: “The majority of the punch list work involves quality control issues with the painting subcontractor. Newfield Construction continues to follow-up on these items with the painter. There are also a number of drywall finish issues and areas of the exposed concrete floor that require refinishing.”
Phase Two of the project has begun, and Mr Mitchell said some items in Phase One have been moved to Phase Two to cover costs. He added those changes are “nothing that would put the project in jeopardy.”
Due to the way the auditorium was originally designed, Mr Mitchell said the final inspections for the Certificate of Occupancy are on hold until Christmas break, when power to the area can be shut down without interrupting students. The breaker will be a large undertaking, and the inspection was moved to winter break “just in case” power to the building is impacted for a period of time.
“Fingers crossed, the schedule is going to stay, there is no weird weather, no weird things happening,” said Ms Hiscavich, adding the auditorium is now 13 weeks away from opening on January 5.
Questions Over Contractors
Board of Education members voiced questions and concerns for the project.
Mr Mitchell responded to a question from member John Vouros about impacts to the project from items being moved from Phase One to Phase Two, saying, “There is money being moved from Phase One to Phase Two, but it relates to Phase Two work that we did during Phase One.”
Mr Mitchell also said lights — based on earlier documentation for the project and not later being coordinated between the electrical engineer and the theater consultant — were installed “front to back” instead of “side to side” to the stage. The cost to fix the lights to be side to side was estimated at $15,000, according to Mr Mitchell.
“I hope we are not having to go to [district Business Director Ron Bienkowski] and say we need money, because, guess what, we don’t have it,” said Mr Vouros, calling the issue a mistake.
When asked who would be responsible for the change, Mr Mitchell said it was a lack of coordination in the documents that was not “picked up” and the Public Building & Site Commission with the town’s attorney can look into being reimbursed.
School board member Rebekah Harriman-Stites asked what STV/DPM’s role is on the project, and she pointed out a section of the September 26 report that says contract work in Phase One for infrastructure work in Phase Two and improvements to the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system exceeded $165,000. Ms Harriman-Stites shared concerns for what might not be included in the project due to the changes.
“This is not a project the Board of Ed really has much control over,” she continued. “I feel like our hands are tied when things don’t go our way, because its not really our project.”
Ms Harriman-Stites asked what recourse could be taken.
STV/DPM, Mr Mitchell explained, acts as the owner’s representative between the town, the project team, and the state. Its primary role is to file state paperwork and make sure requirements are met to get reimbursement from the state for the project, and another role is reporting on the project.
According to Mr Bienkowski, STV/DPM’s oversight of the project is done with the end of Phase One.
The Board of Education later voted 6-1 to request the Board of Selectmen and Public Building & Site review STV/DPM’s contract, with Ms Hiscavich’s punch-list in mind, and withholding further payments until a review is submitted. Board of Education Chairman Keith Alexander voted against the motion, saying he feels he does not have enough information to vote on the topic.
The approved $3.6 million project also includes $750,000 for Phase Two, which was approved separately as part of the district’s Capital Improvement Plan.
Ms Hiscavich said frustrations with the project began with the original budget.
“It was inadequate. It was not enough to do this project properly. We had to go back for a second request for additional money to do a Phase Two,” said Ms Hiscavich. “The original budget did not have enough money to fix lighting and sound, which were major problems to begin with. The difficulty has been to get the project done within the budget.”
After board member Andrew Clure asked what the school board could do if it is unhappy with any work, Mr Mitchell said the school board would “have to go through [First Selectman Pat Llodra and town Finance Director Robert Tait] as the town and express concern.” The town attorney would also go over a contract to determine a response to a situation. Later Mr Mitchell said issues with the project have been discussed with the town’s attorney.
When the space is open to the community, Ms Hiscavich said people will want to see a difference and not “shoddy work.”
“It is going to be evident unless we fix these things,” said Ms Hiscavich.
The project, according to Ms Hiscavich, is now approaching critical technology components and she has been adamant about getting the proper equipment for the space.
Efforts are being made to make sure the project is done by January 5, according to Ms Hiscavich, who added, it will be done by that date “if I have to get in there with a paint brush.”