WEST NEWBURY — Slightly elevated CO2 levels in some areas of the Dr. John C. Page Elementary School can be managed in the short term by strategically placing oscillating fans and occasionally cracking open windows in those classrooms where the problem was identified, Superintendent Jeff Mulqueen told the Pentucket Regional School Committee on Tuesday.
West Newbury representative Chris Wile added a discussion on air quality at Page to the board’s agenda after being contacted by concerned residents.
A report issued by EFI Global, which conducted air quality testing at the school in December, indicated levels of the odorless gas fell slightly outside of recommended standards.
After reviewing the report with an industrial hygienist, Mulqueen decided to proactively install fans in the classrooms where elevated CO2 levels were identified and to instruct staff to occasionally crack a window to help cycle air through the building.
He also met with town officials to discuss long-term remedies for the problem that might include replacement of the mechanical air handlers at the school, a project that could cost upward of $550,000, according to town officials. Mulqueen stressed that CO2 is not a pollutant but rather “a marker to know whether you need circulation of air.”
Chris Reading of West Newbury, who served on the Page Building Committee, told her colleagues that the current air handler unit is so noisy that it can’t be run during the school day. The building committee was aware of the problem but determined that replacing the unit would be cost-prohibitive to the recently completed $10 million project.
At the time the project was approved in 2010, voters were informed that to fully address the building’s needs would actually cost closer to $20 million. A potential Phase 3 of the project, which includes replacing the mechanical ventilation system, carried an estimated $3.4 million price tag when discussed informally last April.
The approved project created a new gymnasium, cafetorium, revamped front entrance and administrative office area, and also upgraded heating, windows and roofing, making the aging building more airtight and likely contributing to the CO2 issue.
“So we’ve tightened the building but we’re not circulating the air,” said Wile.
Reading likened Mulqueen’s short-term fix to one for which a private homeowner might opt. “If you’re in a room in your house and it’s stuffy — you open the door,” she said.
But Chairman Jack Willett rejected a permanent solution that relied on cracking windows. “I hope West Newbury moves on this, “ he said.
West Newbury’s Jill Eichhorst said that as long as safety isn’t an issue, it’s up to the town to decide if it wants to take further action.
Mulqueen also clarified that initial reporting of EFI Global’s findings inaccurately identified relative humidity levels in the building as slightly higher than average. In fact, the results showed slightly lower levels of humidity, he said.
When contacted about the EFI report last month, Pentucket’s facilities manager, Greg Hadden, had declined to comment, saying the testing had been initiated by West Newbury officials, so they should be the ones to speak about it. Although at the time, there appeared to be confusion among town and school officials over the extent of the air quality issues and how to rectify them, everyone agreed that the bottom line was that air quality at the school was safe for students and teachers.
But the findings have not fully assuaged concerns raised by building inspector Glen Clohecy. In an order dated Sept. 23, 2013, addressed to selectmen, Hadden and the Page Building Committee, Clohecy wrote, “The Massachusetts State Building Code requires that systems be maintained in proper working order for their intended use. Until such time as the air handlers are repaired or replaced, I am ordering monthly testing to monitor the air quality in the school.” Each air quality test costs about $1,200. Last month Clohecy said he was still “not comfortable issuing a certificate of occupancy until the air handler issue is addressed in some form.”
Tuesday’s meeting began with a thank-you for the school board and Mulqueen from Maria Gray, president of the Pentucket Association of Teachers.
Gray said as the new year begins, educators are feeling empowered by the support they are getting from the administration and School Committee. They won’t always agree, she acknowledged, but said establishing good will and respectful communication now will ensure that “bumps down the road” can be handled.
“We’re in a very good place,” Gray said.
Mulqueen recognized Dustin Gray, the newly hired principal of the Page Elementary School, who was in the audience for the meeting. The Dover, N.H., educator takes over the helm at Page on July 1.