School board mulls impact of roof work, school closings

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AYER — Interim Superintendent George Frost gave an update on the roof situation at the Feb. 9 School Committee meeting. With both public school buildings closed last week while heavy snow pile-up was cleared from the roofs, the meeting was relocated from Page Hilltop Elementary School to the Ayer Police Station community conference room.

First off, Frost said he wanted to quell the community’s concern about the condition of the school buildings. “There was no structural damage,” he said. The closure of the schools for roof snow removal was “a proactive, preemptive move.”

The only casualty was an old skylight that got broken when a chunk of snow slid off a shovel and hit it, he said. But the weight of the load was well within building parameters.

The first indication that a centered snow load above might pose a problem below came from a Page Hilltop teacher whose classroom is under an flat roof. She noted that a straight, floor-to-ceiling pipe that serves as a wiring conduit looked off kilter.

A structural engineer was called in. After examining building specs and inspecting the roofs, he determined it was a specific situation rather than a general condition, Frost said. He recommended shoveling off that spot. With that done, the pipe stood straight again. “We kept a close eye” on other roofs after that as drifts mounted, Frost continued.

But after a commercial building in Harvard had a roof collapse and with snow loads added to by rain last Saturday, the fire chief and building inspector re-thought their earlier assessment of school roofs, Frost said. The bottom line Wednesday night was that the schools would be closed again the following day but would hopefully re-open Friday.

With time and liability in mind, Frost hired more than one insured contractor to get going right away, and several crews were at work that day, including a local landscaping firm, with about 45 shovelers and a dozen snow blowers. They started at 7 a.m. By end of day, there were 60 workers on the job, he said. More labor was expected the next day, he continued, including a crew to remove ground-level snow shoveled off the roofs.

With hourly rates from $60 to $70 per hour for shovels and snow blowers, the expense will be at least $70,000 in Ayer. In Shirley, where a Methuen firm charged $80 per hour, the job could be even more expensive, Frost said. School budgets take the hit, either way.

Member Dan Gleason asked if town reserve funds can be tapped into. Frost said he’d look into it, if necessary, but the school budget was in “good shape” so far.

February vacation

tapped for makeup

The question then became how to make up for all those days off. The total days students are in school per year must meet state requirements, as well as hours during the school day devoted to learning activities.

After discussing a couple of ideas, the preferred option on the table was to shave off three days (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) from the upcoming February vacation.

Another option was to do nothing. In that case, with no more snow days, the last day of school would be bumped to June 27. “I have no problem with that,” Frost said. “It’s happened before.” But some might argue against it. Just as others might bristle at the suggestion to cut short school vacation, when families and some staff might have plans.

Chairman Viola Barnes said there will be protests no matter what option the committee chooses. She and others agreed with Frost that make-up days should be in February rather than April vacation for strong, sound educational reasons.

The concern is with disruption of teaching and learning, he said.

In addition to borrowed time from February vacation, a scheduled half-day in March would become a full day, closing the gap entirely.

The solution seemed smooth, except for one bump: what to do about the merged middle school, with a mix of Ayer and Shirley students and teachers. Shirley’s timeline is a few days different than Ayer’s, with a last school day of June 21 and no snow-day deficit.

Frost acknowledged he hadn’t thought of that, and there were folks he had to talk to.

It won’t be an issue for the Ayer-Shirley region next year, when all the clocks, telephones and calendars are in sync. But it is a different kind of shared system this year.

Thursday morning, as an army of workers and equipment shoveled and hauled snow outside, Frost worked in his office. That afternoon, he had all the time issues aligned.

Whether it’s the last day of school or vacation makeovers, this year’s school calendar will match the building locations. “The middle school goes by Shirley’s schedule,” he said.