The new Westbrook Middle School will likely open for students on Wednesday, Jan. 20 – more than two weeks later than originally planned.

The School Committee on Wednesday approved a plan proposed by Superintendent Reza Namin for a professional development day Tuesday, Jan. 19 for teachers to set up their classrooms, opening the way for classes to begin at the new school the next day. The plan means middle-school students will not attend school on Tuesday, following the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Before students can move in, the middle school steering committee, which is meeting Thursday afternoon, will have to vote to formally accept the building from the architect. City inspectors issued a certificate of occupancy Monday, which means teachers’ supplies can be moved into the building.

“I sure hope everything gets done that needs to get done to make that happen,” Principal Brian Mazjanis said Wednesday. “We need to be in that building as soon as possible.”

Residents voted in 2007 to approve the new, $34-million, 135,000-square-foot Westbrook Middle School and auditorium on Stroudwater Street. When the project went out to bid, the school department proposed to open it in September 2010. But, winning bidder Harvey Construction said it would be able to finish the project sooner.

The past month has been a stressful one for school officials trying to figure out whether the new school would open on time and scrambling to deal with the fact that it couldn’t.

Since the school’s groundbreaking in May 2008, officials said, Harvey Construction and Harriman Associates, the architectural firm, have consistently reported that the work was getting done on or ahead of schedule. It wasn’t until the middle of December, less than a month before the school was meant to open, that anyone started hearing otherwise.

A certificate of occupancy was supposed to be issued Dec. 15, but after an inspection, the city’s code enforcement officer, fire inspector and electrical inspector said several more steps would need to be taken before they’d be comfortable allowing masses of people inside the building. Tests hadn’t been completed on the fire alarm systems and generator, and some electrical and plumbing work were unfinished, they said.

At hastily called meeting of school and city officials and representatives of the architect on Dec. 15, the building’s steering committee voted to postpone the dedication planned for the following Saturday.

Though a lot of work had gone into planning and advertising the ceremony, at which as many as 1,000 people were expected to attend, officials agreed it was worth delaying in order to shift the focus to finishing the school in time for classes to start on Jan. 4. Plus, if there was still no certificate of occupancy by the weekend, there couldn’t be any tours.

Namin said a rescheduled dedication is in the works, but a date hasn’t been set yet.

Some saw the delayed dedication as the first red flag that the school wouldn’t be ready for the scheduled start of classes, but others remained confident that the unfinished work could be completed quickly.

Officials continued to meet regularly during the next couple of weeks for updates on the school’s completion. At those meetings, representatives of Harriman and Harvey said they would be able to satisfy the inspectors soon and the school would be able to open on schedule.

But with each inspection, new issues arose. The inspectors said the emergency lighting in the auditorium needed to be brighter and connect to the fire alarm system. A device was needed to disconnect the dishwasher in the kitchen. The sewer pump transmitter needed to be tested.

The construction workers ramped up their efforts in response, and the inspectors continued to come back to see if the work was complete. But the short work weeks due to Christmas and New Year’s made it hard to get everything done on time – and made officials nervous that it wouldn’t be possible.

Considering the confidence of the builders and the inconvenience that delaying the opening of the school would cause, the steering committee kept putting off making the decision whether to postpone the Jan. 4 opening.

“We felt like we had our backs pinned against the wall,” Greg Smith, a member of the steering committee and the School Committee, said Wednesday.

However, when a certificate of occupancy still hadn’t been issued a week before classes were to start, architect Dan Cecil acknowledged that the scheduled opening wouldn’t be feasible.

Still, there were unanswered questions, such as how long the opening would be postponed and where students should go in the mean time. The steering committee tossed around ideas, from simply canceling school for a few days, to holding a week-long recreation camp at Wescott Junior High, to unpacking all of the supplies, returning to the old school and waiting to move until after the February vacation.

But none of those options appealed to officials. Canceled school days would have to be made up somewhere. And moving completely back into the old school would be a waste of time if the new school would be ready relatively soon. One thing officials agreed on, however, was that if any new opening date were set, it couldn’t be missed.

In light of that, Namin made the executive decision to stop trying to figure out when the school would open. Students, he said, would return to the old junior high after their winter vacation and would move into the new school whenever it was ready. The steering committee unanimously supported that plan.

Smith said that had officials known a month earlier that the building wouldn’t be ready on time, a lot of agony and stress could have been avoided.

“Harvey was clearly overly optimistic,” he said.

He also said it was also up to Harriman to let the school department know earlier that the scheduled opening wasn’t likely.

“I think there was sort of a collective exercise in rose-colored glasses,” said Smith, adding that he believes the enthusiasm for the new building made stakeholders “reluctant to call a spade a spade.”

Last week, back at Wescott, students and teachers said that despite the anti-climactic return from vacation, school was running smoothly.

“Teachers have done a great job the last couple of weeks,” Mazjanis said. “It’s difficult to do your jobs without your materials.”

Inspectors returned to the new middle school for an inspection Friday and signed off on the building, pending a state inspection of the boiler, which was completed Monday.

Because teachers would still need time outside of class to set up their rooms, Namin and Mazjanis decided to reschedule a professional development day that was supposed to be in March for Tuesday.

According to Dan Fournier of Harriman, Harvey still has about a dozen items to check off before the building can be considered complete, such as handing over the owner’s manuals for the systems to the school department. He said those details would be laid out before the steering committee Thursday.

Before Harvey gets its final payment, the school department plans to deduct any costs incurred by the delay of the opening – mostly, Namin said, costs associated with the moving company storing the school’s supplies in its vans for the past couple of weeks.

When reached Wednesday, John Zahr, president of Harvey Construction, declined to comment on the project.

Rene Daniel, co-chairman of the building committee and the steering committee, said he doesn’t place blame on anyone, and was extremely pleased with the work done by both the architect and construction company.

“If I had to redo it, I would hire Harriman again and I would hire Harvey again,” he said.


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