A report showing that fire sprinklers in the Winthrop Grade School failed an inspection went unnoticed by the district’s top administrators for almost six years, even after the failed inspection was again flagged by a private contractor in the summer of 2016.

The Winthrop School Department finally took steps to resolve the sprinkler problems last May, after a member of the Office of the State Fire Marshal was inspecting a day care located in the school and discovered the past failure. Public records outlining the problem and steps officials took to address the issue have been revealed following a Freedom of Access Act request from the Kennebec Journal for documents from the Town Office and fire marshal’s office.

Now, school Superintendent Gary Rosenthal says the district has updated its procedures to ensure that copies of all sprinkler inspection reports are sent directly to him and the schools’ principals.

But the steps Rosenthal has taken to resolve the sprinkler problem have frustrated some local officials and comes amid a larger debate about his performance as superintendent. The School Board, which recently extended Rosenthal’s contract, has consistently defended the work he’s done to educate the district’s students, expand its programs, and improve its finances.

Town Officials have criticized Rosenthal’s performance, and school administrators who have become frustrated with him are now trying to form a union.

In an interview in October, Town Council Chairwoman Sarah Fuller called it “appalling” that kids could have been at risk in the years the system wasn’t repaired.

After the problem was flagged, the town’s firefighters had to provide monitoring in the grade school for about 20 days, until classes finished for the year and the School Department was able to make the repair, according to Dan Brooks, the local fire chief. The sprinklers are located in a corridor of the school that’s near the cafeteria and about 100 feet long, and they work in conjunction with an alarm system that’s installed throughout the whole building. The corridor was built roughly 17 years ago, when the construction of a new high school on Rambler Road led to a series of changes in the district’s buildings.

That includes reports from the fire marshal’s office, as well as those from Eastern Fire, a private contractor based in Auburn that performs regular inspections of the district’s sprinklers and fire alarms. It was Eastern Fire that flagged the sprinkler problem in 2016, when the district was due to perform another internal inspection of the system.

“We’re not sure who they were emailing those (reports) to,” Rosenthal said. “(Eastern Fire) couldn’t even tell us. One of the people they were emailing doesn’t work in the district any more. … We used to have a maintenance director back in the day. I don’t know if they were being sent to him. We don’t know who they were being sent to.”

Rosenthal continued, “We’re now keeping a file (of reports) in the central office. We just got some the other day. The way they’re coming in now, it’s very efficient. … We’re really pleased with how things are going.”

Last month, Town Manager Ryan Frost, who was hired in June after serving as Winthrop’s police chief, raised concern about Rosenthal’s internal investigation of the sprinkler problems.

In a Dec. 6 email to Rosenthal, Frost said that the investigation was “incomplete” and “potentially tainted,” and he encouraged Rosenthal to retract a letter that described the steps he’d taken.

Frost also described the tone of Rosenthal’s letter as “arguably adversarial at a time when I know we should be coming together to do what is right for our community. I also thought this situation was behind us.”

Rosenthal’s letter, dated Oct. 16, was a response to complaints made by Fuller at a May 24 Town Council meeting. In it, he concluded that he had not “deferred maintenance of a sprinkler system” or “jeopardiz(ed) the safety of our students.”

INSPECTION UNNOTICED

Two groups of people provide inspections of the fire safety of the Winthrop School Department’s facilities.

The district hires Eastern Fire, out of Auburn, to perform regular inspections and maintenance of its alarms and sprinklers. Members of the state fire marshal’s office also provide inspections of the Winthrop Grade School, as it houses a day care facility that is licensed and regulated by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

According to a timeline Rosenthal attached to his October letter, the sprinklers at Winthrop Grade School failed an internal inspection in the summer of 2011, just a couple months before he came into the position of superintendent. The timeline doesn’t indicate who performed that inspection.

But current administrators in the School Department only learned of that failed inspection last spring, when it was contacted by a member of the fire marshal’s office who had recently inspected the childcare program at the Winthrop Grade School and found a 2016 report from Eastern Fire, Rosenthal wrote.

According to the 2016 report, which was provided to the Kennebec Journal by the fire marshal’s office, the sprinklers at the grade school were taking longer than 30 minutes to re-pressurize after they had been tested

The fire marshal’s office called the school’s principal, Jeffrey Ladd, to inform him “that the WGS Sprinkler System had failed the internal inspection in the summer of 2011 and that there was no record of corrective action having been taken,” Rosenthal wrote.

Reached for comment, Ladd referred questions about the fire sprinkler problems to Rosenthal.

The fire marshal’s office also issued three orders to the School Department: it must provide evidence that it corrected the pressure problem, it must conduct a new sprinkler test that was originally due in late 2016, and it must seal holes in the walls of the grade school’s boiler room.

After learning of those problems in late May, the School Department performed the required test, which failed because there were excessive amounts of debris in the discharge from the sprinklers, Rosenthal wrote in his timeline. It hired Eastern Fire to remedy that problem, at a quoted price of between $12,000 and $15,000.

But the work wasn’t completed until classes ended in June. In the meantime, town firefighters were required to spend a couple hours of each school day monitoring the area with the sprinklers, for a period of about 20 days.

The total cost to the town for their efforts was about $600, according to Frost.

SYSTEM RESPONSIBILITY

Brooks, the chief of the Winthrop Fire Department, said it ultimately was the responsibility of the Winthrop School Department to catch and address the problems highlighted by those inspections.

But Brooks also said that it can be hard for people unfamiliar with fire codes to understand the results of those inspections — a point that Richard McCarthy, the state’s Assistant Fire Marshal, also made.

“We do see this sometimes from facilities,” McCarthy said during an interview. “If you read through the (sprinkler report), it is somewhat dense to wade through, and if you don’t do it regularly, it can be missed.”

McArthy added that the fire marshal’s office didn’t notice the problems before because it doesn’t usually inspect the corridor of Winthrop Grade School where the sprinklers are located.

Last summer, the state fire marshal’s office required that another central Maine school district, the Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18, make millions of dollars in upgrades over the next five years to correct dozens of fire code violations.

What’s more, Brooks said that he’s surprised the private contractor, Eastern Fire, didn’t make more effort to notify Winthrop school officials about the problem after the 2016 inspection.

A representative for Eastern Fire, Frank Welch Jr., declined to discuss the case and referred questions to the Winthrop School Department.

While all fire sprinklers must be working, Brooks said that fire sprinklers protect just a small section of Winthrop Grade School, and the rest of the building was still protected by fire alarms during the period when the failed inspections were going unnoticed.

“My kids went there and were safe,” Brooks said. But, he continued, “It’s obviously not something we want to be repeated.”

In his letter explaining the sprinkler problems, Rosenthal referred to several of those arguments.

Asked who was responsible for the inspections going unnoticed, Rosenthal said, “I’m not here to point fingers. It was brought to our attention that we had a problem, and we immediately set out to investigate it, and we did. We talked to a number of individuals involved. We got advice from people before we moved forward. Chief Brooks has obviously been very helpful. … (Eastern Fire has also done) a great job for us, but they can only work with the information they have.”

While Rosenthal has taken into account several of the suggestions that Frost, the town manager, made in his email, he doesn’t plan to retract the letter he wrote in October.

“I spoke with Ryan about that, and I really don’t want to get into the personal conversation,” Rosenthal said. “It went well, I think.”

In that email, Frost took issue with several parts of the letter documenting Rosenthal’s internal investigation of the sprinkler problems, including that it didn’t provide the perspectives of other School Department staff, or first hand information from either Eastern Fire or the fire marshal’s office.

Frost also wrote that Rosenthal should make more effort to determine who in the School Department was receiving reports from Eastern Fire over the years.

But Rosenthal said he’s reviewed the matter “thoroughly” and called “this one of those situations where we’re ready to move along and move forward. We have a plan in place to make sure what happened doesn’t happen in the future.”