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Mystic School rehab plans on hold after estimates come in higher than expected

Recreation Department Director Nick Cacciolfi walks alongside the antiquated boiler system at the Mystic School. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/NELL ESCOBAR COAKLEY

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A few weeks ago, the Select Board was ready to fund a replacement of the failing HVAC and electrical systems at the Mystic School, but those plans appear to be on hold now, after cost estimates came in much higher than anticipated.

The issue initially came up during a Jan. 8 Select Board meeting where Recreation Department Director Nick Cacciolfi and Department of Public Works Facilities Manager Pete Lawson spoke to the board about the ongoing problems with the heating system across the building.

Recreation Department Director Nick Cacciolfi shows one of the heating units used at the Mystic School to regulate temperature in a classroom with young kids. The unit has to be monitored as it drains water into an overflow bucket. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/NELL ESCOBAR COAKLEY

The Select Board voted to approve $150,000 for engineering work after a discussion about whether or not to invest American Rescue Plan Act funds to upgrade the building. The board also informed the School Committee about the project because the building is still in control of the School Department.

During last week’s School Committee meeting, Superintendent Frank Hackett addressed the latest findings.

“There was some energy and conversation around trying to get an HVAC replacement, and the town’s gone through the process and has kept us informed,” said Hackett. “The preliminary thought or estimates around what that might cost went from a little over $1 million or $1.5 million to significantly more, as these projects sometimes do.” 

A door to the boiler room cautions about asbestos. Whenever there is a steam leak at the school, workers need to contact asbestos experts to deal with the problem, costing the town time and money. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/NELL ESCOBAR COAKLEY

Hackett said Andrew Marron, director of finance & operations for the schools, met with town management and Lawson about the scope of the project, adding “it’s apparent that there won’t be any full-scale work done this summer as part of any kind of project, but as we find out more and know more, we’ll keep you posted.”

Chris Nixon suggested making incremental repairs to the systems, rather than a complete overhaul. 

“I don’t know that we’ve actually seen an actual document, in terms of an estimate for $1.5 million,” he said. “I think that might have been sort of an inside baseball number that was being kicked around between management and DPW.  But now that the number has come in much higher, my suggestion to the committee ...  is that I see Mystic a lot like I see Muraco.” 

Nixon referred to the Muraco life extension plan instituted by the town four years ago to make necessary repairs to extend the life of the building for 10 years, knowing that the town would mostly likely replace the school building.

“We did not put a brand-new roof over all of Muraco,” Nixon said. “We re-roofed a portion of it; we did repair work.” 

Exposed electrical wiring in the boiler room of the Mystic School. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/NELL ESCOBAR COAKLEY

Instead of replacing the entire electrical system, Nixon reminded everyone that “we replaced those components that were necessary so we could feel confident we could stretch that building out until 2029-2030.”

He said the money the town put into the school was worth it, adding “we budgeted $3.6 million for that work [and] we are substantially under budget today, with all that work done. We are hundreds of thousands of dollars under budget.”

“We need to get through our master plan to give this committee some guidance about what the future of Mystic is. I’m not convinced that building is standing in 20 years,” Nixon added. “Our current master plan [which was completed in the spring of 2017] says ‘you don’t need it right now, but don’t get rid of it because you might need it in a decade.’ And so now it’s time to study that again. 

Wires and a plank keeping the system together at the Mystic School. Signs warning about asbestos are posted around the pipes. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/NELL ESCOBAR COAKLEY

“If we have more of a short-term interest in Mystic, I would argue to this committee, we should be having a conversation with engineering and planning and management about what smaller scale investments are necessary,” Nixon continued. “Because our kids need reliable heat, reliable controls in that building, and not just for next year but for some number of years until we can really consider the ultimate disposition of that building.

“The point I’m making to the committee is, we can make changes at Mystic and still do good,” he concluded. “We used to heat the building with coal...Even today, a high efficiency modular gas-fired boiler would be a more efficient solution than what we have. I’m not saying we should go that way, but I think we can make some smart decisions with respect to our climate action plan, and also be sensitive towards our utility bills.”

Broken windows on the outside of the Mystic School cause issues with the heating of the school. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/NELL ESCOBAR COAKLEY

Nixon said he was interested in learning more from the ongoing discussions that Marron is having with town management and DPW, and the School Committee agreed to add the item to future agendas.

Winchester News staff reporter Nell Escobar Coakley added to this report.

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