Fairfield schools look to fast-track $94M air conditioning project

File photo of Fairfield Woods Middle School.

File photo of Fairfield Woods Middle School.

Genevieve Reilly / Genevieve Reilly

FAIRFIELD — Officials are looking to speed up an effort that would add air conditioning to all town schools.

The projects were originally spaced out within the district’s 10-year capital waterfall plan, which was approved at the last Board of Education meeting, but the school board is hoping to accomplish the task in a five-year window instead. Members said the need is greater now and the costs would only increase as the years go on.

“I think having fresh air in our schools, now more than ever, is really important,” said board member Jessica Gerber.

School officials are looking to present the project either as part of the overall capital plan or as its own separate bonding proposal when the different town bodies come together for the capital summit this month.

The school board has been discussing adding air conditioning to all of the buildings for years, but only recently received the estimates prepared by DTC, an engineering consulting firm with offices in Hamden.

Gerber said the cost of adding air conditioning to the schools came as a surprise.

“There really is some incredible sticker shock,” Gerber said. “These numbers are so much higher than what’s been in past facilities’ planning books.”

Adding air conditioning at North Stratfield, both high schools, Osborn Hill, Woods and Tomlinson schools is projected to cost about $94 million. Once Dwight and Jennings schools are factored in, the total price tag goes to roughly $110 million, she said.

And the cost could rise from there.

“As we know, this is a starting point,” chairwoman Christine Vitale said. “When you start ripping apart older buildings and ceilings, I think we need to be prepared for what we might find.”

Vitale said she wants DTC to give the board a presentation that offered more detail on the overall air conditioning project and what it means for each school. She encouraged other town boards to also join them, given the cost of the project and how it could affect other capital needs.

Angelus Papageorge, executive director of operations, said moving the timeline up would save the district money because it would take out some of the escalation costs factored into the current figures.

He also said he’s unsure how the COVID pandemic and the heightened attention to air flow projects would factor into state reimbursements. Previously, the state hadn’t really approved reimbursements for air conditioning projects, he said.

“It’s not unheard of, it’s just not the normal practice,” Papageorge said.

Board members said moving it up would also meet the need sooner, especially given the current air quality focus. They also said the weather is staying hotter longer now.

Superintendent Mike Cummings said the security plan doesn’t really allow for having doors and windows open and so air conditioning is the only way to address the heat, humidity and air quality. He cautioned that while important, air conditioning shouldn’t take the place of other projects in the plan.

“It’s a larger pot, not just a different allocation of the pot,” he said.

Under the 10-year plan, the district would add the $7.3 million plan for Woods in the upcoming year, along with seed money for the Osborn air conditioning project. Papageorge said that request doesn’t replace anything, but is in addition to the items already approved for the first year of the plan.

Warde high school wouldn’t be done until 2031 under the current plan.

“So basically a third grader today would get one year of air conditioning at Warde,” Gerber said.

The entire waterfall plan is a living document that will be continually updated each year. It currently totals nearly $284 million for the whole decade and includes numerous projects, including turf fields, boilers and bathroom renovations.

Papageorge said the town usually bonds $20 million a year — $10 million for the schools and $10 million for the town.