Chilmark Will Vote on School Repairs

Gazette Senior Writer

It's going to cost a fresh pile of money, but Chilmark selectmen said this week that they now have a handle on the source of the physical plant problems at the town grammar school - and are on track to repair them.

But first voters must agree. A special town meeting is set for next Wednesday, when voters will be asked to approve another $200,000 for repairs at the Chilmark School.

The money request is the only article on the warrant. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. on June 16 in the Chilmark Community Center.

Completed in 1999 at a cost of $3.6 million, the school has been plagued with problems from the outset, including failed floor tiles and faulty insulation.

"The building itself is actually a beautiful building, it works beautifully as a school and it works beautifully for the town of Chilmark - it just has construction problems that need to be fixed," said selectman and board chairman Warren Doty this week.

"It is fixable, it's just a needless burden on the taxpayers," said selectman Frank M. Fenner Jr. Mr. Fenner is acting as point man on the school building problems.

He and Mr. Doty both said this week that a chemical analysis of the floor tile adhesive has come back and shows that the wrong adhesive was probably used when the tiles were laid.

Mr. Doty said bid specifications have been prepared for the school repairs and have already been advertised, and he praised the work of Peter Breese, a Vineyard Haven architect who did an analysis of the building for the town.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether the selectmen will try to sue Charles Rose - the Cambridge architect who designed the project.

Mr. Doty confirmed that the selectmen are discussing the possibility of some kind of litigation, but beyond that the discussion has been confined to executive session.

"It's a complicated question and we are trying pursue that, but I don't really have any answers," Mr. Doty said.

The contractor - Standen Contracting - was released from any legal liability in 1999 when the town settled a dispute with the company just after the school had opened. At the time the town had withheld a payment to the contractor of some $80,000. The town used legal construction experts at the Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray when the settlement was crafted.

Mr. Fenner said yesterday that he believes the decision to release the contractor was wrong.

"It was a mistake, and I think it was made in the haste of trying to get into the building," he said.

This is not the first time that problems have cropped up in a Standen building. The same company renovated the Edgartown town hall in the early 1990s and the town later wound up in litigation with the contractor over problems related to faulty construction. The town eventually won its case in the state appeals court in 1995.

Litigation over construction projects is costly and in a relatively small project like the Chilmark School, often the cost of litigation can be as high as the amount recovered. Also, once a project is done it is difficult to pin down responsibility for problems: Was it the architect, the builder, or perhaps even the manufacturer of the building materials?

Beyond all that, Mr. Doty said the real problem is rooted in the uniform procurement act - the state law that requires towns to use the lowest bidder in most construction projects.

In August of 1998 there were two bidders on the Chilmark School project: J.K. Scanlon Co. bid $2.47 million, while Standen Contracting bid $2.43 million.

Mr. Doty said the problem goes beyond the reputation of the company.

"Even when you have a very good, reputable company that bids low, the company is locked into that low bid. If there is a problem they can't just go out and hire someone to solve the problem because if they do that they blow their profit margin," he said, adding:

"What ends up happening is these companies end up using subcontractors that work at a low price … and we have seen how these projects go. The first half of the project goes beautifully and you might have a beautiful roof . . . but toward the end things begin to go downhill because the money is running out and the subcontractors are gone and there is no one there to fix the problems from their work."

Mr. Doty said the problem has echoed through every recent town construction project.

"The town of Chilmark has done three very nice buildings in the last three years - all good buildings - but toward the end the contractors have been in the hole, the completion of the project is delayed and the punch list is a nightmare. It's a function of the low bidding process," he said.

Mr. Fenner agreed.

"The poor taxpayer really gets it in the neck," he said.

"I can understand the need for fair bidding practices, but it really just does not work well for small towns," he added.

Mr. Fenner, who was a builder for many years, was less than complimentary about the school building design.

"My common sense says that in New England they put a pitch on a roof for a reason - number one, it's functional, and number two, it's simplistic."

He was also critical of the decision to build the school on a concrete slab with no cellar. The water pipes for the school are located in the ceiling, and poor insulation in the ceiling has led to freeze ups during periods of extreme cold weather.

Mr. Doty said the analysis of the building shows that the insulation was put into the wrong places.

The road to building a new school in Chilmark was long and at times bumpy. In 1997 voters finally approved a design for the school after three earlier plans had been scrapped. Townspeople also decided to build the school with no state reimbursement in order to escape bureaucratic strings and build a school that was more in keeping with the character of the rural up-Island town.

The building project was fraught with cost overruns and today the repair bills continue to mount.

If voters agree, next week, the $200,000 will be added to some $75,000 remaining from $100,000 approved for school repairs at an earlier town meeting. Some insurance money has also been collected for repairs over the last few years.

In the end, Mr. Fenner said, the buck stops with the town.

"We're going to repair it; we need to repair it regardless of where the blame lies. It's our building," he concluded.