WESTBROOK – Things are still not quite right at Westbrook Middle School, but students and staff say life is better than it was at Wescott Junior High.

When the opening of the $34 million, 135,000-square-foot building was delayed a little over a year ago, inspectors said it needed more work before it was safe for occupancy. Crews rushed to get it to a point where it could open, but a year later, some issues remain unresolved, and more seem to be cropping up over time.

The Westbrook School Committee recently authorized spending up to $5,000 to extend the warranty on the school’s geothermal heating system. Geothermal systems are gaining in popularity as an energy-efficient way to heat and cool buildings. But Russ Brigham, director of facilities and transportation for the city and schools, said they are highly complex systems and a number of things have gone wrong.

The problems vary and can be tricky to spot because the district is still getting used to the system, Brigham said. For example, the system was not meeting the heating needs of the cafeteria and music room because the vendor supplied incorrect coils, he said.

Another problem, which has resulted in some rooms being too hot, is that sensors in some of the radiant floors malfunctioned, he said.

Brigham said any project as extensive as the middle school would have issues. The district continues to work with the general contractor, Harvey Construction, and engineers to eliminate the problems.

“It’s not so much that it’s a major problem because it’s working,” Brigham said.

There is a long list of other minor nuisances that have been identified as far back as the punch list that was crafted near the end of the project. Most of those have been resolved, but a lingering problem is leaking water around the canopy area near the entrance to the Performing Arts Center, he said.

Issues with vendors supplying the wrong parts, or construction not meeting specifications, can be rectified through warranty coverage and contingency, Brigham said. However, sometimes it is not always clear exactly who is at fault. The Performing Arts Center’s stage needs roughly $26,000 in repairs because, according to Brigham, its supports were improperly installed and a staff member drove a 1,793-pound lift onto it to reach the lights hanging from the ceiling.

Even if the stage had been properly constructed, it was not designed to support a lift of that weight, he said.

“I don’t know what happened,” Brigham said, adding the damage was reported a month ago.

Jamie Grant, director of the Performing Arts Center, declined to comment on the matter.

The mishap has not halted events at the center. From a visual standpoint, there appears to be no damage. Brigham said even minor imperfections could affect a dancer’s performance.

Superintendent Dr. Reza Namin maintains the issue is one of design. He said he is working with the contractor to reach a solution.

“I refuse to accept the fact that it’s our responsibility,” he said. “It’s a new building and the people who designed it and worked on it need to be accountable.”

As a whole, Namin said, the middle school is like any new building. It has its quirks and its flaws, and only by occupying it over the past year could they have discovered them all.

“It’s kind of like losing $1,000 when you’ve got $10 million,” said Brigham.

For the students, the school is a welcome change of environment compared to the old Wescott Junior High.

“My old math class, literally, used to be a closet,” said Patrick Weimer, a 14-year-old eighth-grader.

Students interviewed had few complaints about the new building, but a near universal one was the heating system.

“One half of the school is cold and one half is hot,” Weimer said.

But the positives have far outweighed the negatives, and the students say the new surroundings have had a positive impact on grades and attitudes.

“The old school put a lot of stress on teachers and students,” said eighth-grader Nicole Labbe, 13.

“When we made this new school, it kind of brought us closer together,” added 13-year-old Curtis Knapton, a seventh-grade student.

To the students, it may seem like the building itself deserves the credit for lifting their spirits, but school officials say new administrative strategies are paying off, as well.

Matt Nelson, the dean of curriculum, lauds the new Pillars of Excellence program for highlighting the positive things students do on a daily basis.

Teachers recognize students for living up to the five pillars, which are respect, courage, loyalty, tolerance and responsibility. Stars hanging around the school announce the good deeds and students receive tokens for their actions that can be redeemed for prizes, Nelson said.

At the first trimester awards assembly, 55 students were recognized as the best representatives of the pillars. Nelson said 42 percent made the honor roll this year, compared to 32 percent last year, and 119 students have received Falcon Cards, compared to 102 a year ago. Students earn the cards, which net them discounts at local businesses, through their conduct and effort, he said.

“Everyone’s approach and outlook is a little bit different,” Nelson said of the attitude change since the new school opened. “From a general overall perspective, it’s running great.”

Complex piping systems in a mechanical room at Westbrook Middle School are only one piece of the sophisticated geothermal heating system that has had a number of malfunctions since the school opened.Staff photo by Joey Cresta

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