Decaying water pipes plague Mount Abe

BRISTOL — Mount Abraham Union High School’s aging innards continue to occupy school district officials with emergency repairs.
In January, several square feet of ceramic tile fell off the walls of the downstairs boys’ shower room, the result of leaky water pipes. Testing came back negative for asbestos, but positive for mold.
“Thankfully the (mold spore) count was low and we caught it early,” said Joel FitzGerald, facilities director for the Mount Abraham Unified School District (MAUSD).
Mike Orvis, Mount Abe’s facilities manager, sealed off the shower room and MAUSD hired a contractor to assess the damage and come up with a mold remediation plan.
Then last week, another plumbing issue arose in a different part of the 51-year-old building: The pipe that drains the cafeteria’s dishwasher and garbage disposal began leaking water into an adjacent room, which houses two milk coolers and a freezer.
Orvis sealed off that area from the rest of the kitchen, and work has begun there, too.
MAUSD officials have identified at least two sources of mold in the building.
Water escaping from worn-out plumbing in the upstairs “gang shower” found its way down the insides of the walls until it came between wall and tile in the shower room below.
Water from a leaky toilet upstairs had also found its way into the downstairs shower room — traveling along the steel wall framing, dripping onto air-ventilation shafts, and eventually soaking a ceiling tile below.
Mold remediation should cost less than $15,000, some or all of which will be covered by insurance, FitzGerald said.
The real expense will come afterward.
“All the bathrooms and locker rooms need to come out to the studs,” FitzGerald said.
Then they will have to be rebuilt.
Not only that, but the district will have to decide whether to update the shower rooms for the 21st century.
The current “gang showers” on both floors consist of open rooms with a row of showerheads along one wall. Adding privacy partitions, which are becoming more common in public bathroom facilities, could add roughly $10,000 for each shower room, FitzGerald said.
IN ADDITION TO leaky plumbing inside the walls of a second-floor shower room at Mount Abe, failing tiles, grout and caulk may have also have contributed to water damage and mold that were found in the shower room directly below. These tiles were likely installed when the building was built in the late 1960s. Below, a corroded dishwasher drainpipe in the Mount Abe kitchen began leaking last week, causing water damage in the adjacent cooler room. Students had to use paper plates in the cafeteria until the plumbing was fixed and the dishwasher became operable again.
Independent photos/Christopher Ross
Other issues weighing heavily on the minds of MAUSD decision makers include Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender. A provision of that act requires equal treatment of female and male student athletes in the provisions of, among other things, facilities use and locker rooms.
Ethically, it would be difficult to justify a boys’ locker-room makeover while ignoring the girls’ facilities, which are also original to the building and suffering from deterioration, said MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen.
The timeline for undertaking repairs is also complicated.
“In a perfect world, I would shut everything down tomorrow and get started,” FitzGerald said.
But if the work will require sealing off not only the downstairs showers but also the adjacent locker rooms; that work will have to wait until after spring sports are finished, he said.
Depending on the scope and cost of the project, MAUSD officials may also be forced by limited finances to have the work performed over time, in stages.
Meanwhile, the shower room is sealed with heavy plastic sheeting and plywood, and gym students, the boys’ basketball team and early-morning adult swimmers must find some other place to shower.
In the cafeteria, students were eating off of paper plates until the dishwasher’s plumbing could be fixed.
Plumbers were expected this week, FitzGerald said on Monday.
Compared with a moldy shower room, fixing the dishwasher and attendant water damage is quite modest, but it still requires time, attention and money the school district would rather put toward educating the kids in the building.
As critical components of building’s infrastructure reach the ends of their life spans, MAUSD officials worry such emergencies — both large and small — will only become more frequent.
In 2016, a plumbing leak wrecked the school’s gym floor, which cost the district more than $160,000 to replace.
Last year, the district spent $80,000 to resurface the walls in a girls’ shower room, which had suffered water damage, FitzGerald said.
Since 2014 the school district has three times pleaded with 5-Town voters for multi-million-dollar bonds to renovate the high school, and voters have three times turned them down.
Prior to voting on the second of those bond proposals, in 2017, Bristol selectboard member Joel Bouvier wondered aloud about what sorts of big-price-tag issues might be lurking behind Mount Abe’s walls.
“We’ve gone 50 years without a major renovation,” he said.
Fellow selectboard member Peter Coffey, a former principal of Vergennes Union High School, agreed.
“Whether this (bond) passes, we’re going to pay in the next 50 years because we’re going to have the gym issues somewhere else,” he said, referring to then-recently destroyed floor.
As tentative discussions around a possible fourth renovation bond get under way, not only among MAUSD officials but in the community at large, the cost and inconvenience of such emergency repairs will likely prompt spirited debate and, it is to be hoped, inspire stakeholders to work together toward sustainable solutions.
In the meantime, FitzGerald feels for the students who deal with these issues every day.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the condition of those showers, and to see the eyes of the students as they use the dressing rooms,” he said. “This is what we’re asking our children to do.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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