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Face the Facts: Region 18 Schools Could Get a $57.5 Million Upgrade

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This week, the state announced a $150 million grant reimbursement program to help schools upgrade their HVAC systems. Region 18 Schools (Lyme-Old Lyme) has a $57.5 million project coming up for a referendum in November.

Superintendent Ian Neviaser joins Mike Hydeck to discuss the need and the impact the new program could have.

Mike Hydeck: Now this was a major issue even before the start of COVID. Many Connecticut schools have out of date heating systems and a lot with no air conditioning. Add to that the contentious battle over how to pay for these systems with either state or local money and kids were destined to sweat in the summers and possibly freeze in the winters for years. So did the COVID crisis actually come to the rescue here? Lyme-Old Lyme school district is getting some major HVAC upgrades. So how do they do it? Joining me now is Region 18 Schools Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent Ian Neviaser. Mr. Neviaser, thank you so much for coming here to discuss your big HVAC project and how it got the green light. Welcome to Face the Facts.

Ian Neviaser: Oh, thank you very much. Just to clarify, it has gotten a green light from the Board of Education, but we still need to go to a referendum so the public can vote on whether or not we can bond for the money to support that.

Mike Hydeck: That's exactly my first question. Excellent. So they did vote, the board voted to borrow $57.5 million for heating ventilation systems as well. Is that going to be a hard sell to taxpayers moving forward? How do you feel about the next coming step?

Ian Neviaser: Well, I think anytime you're asking for additional monies, that there's always a requirement that we try to sell this to people. I think there are certainly, we have established the need. Our buildings, while they're in great shape, the systems in those buildings are quite old. Many of them are nearing their end of life. And we just want to make sure that we're able to provide a safe and comfortable environment for our students and our staff.

Mike Hydeck: And it's been a challenge for schools all across our state for years now. So do you think the millions in COVID-related federal funding that gets pumped into the system statewide can play a role with getting this project started? And maybe across the finish line?

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Ian Neviaser: I sure hope it can. We will absolutely be applying for one of these grants. Per my understanding, it's about $150 million for the whole state. As you just mentioned, the projected cost for ours is around, after state reimbursement, around $47 million. So, you know, you think about how much $150 million is across the whole state. I don't expect that we're going to get enough to cover the whole project, but anything would help.

Mike Hydeck: So I'm sure you're aware of the debate over who should be paying for a new HVAC systems has been an issue for years. Some state officials have told me in previous interviews that a lot of local school systems defer their maintenance and end up spending that money elsewhere. And then they're left empty handed when it's time to repair their HVAC system. Has that ever been the case in your district? And how or why do schools do that?

Ian Neviaser: Well, I think there's a lot of priorities in schools. And it's not as if we just have a blank check to be able to address all of those priorities. So we school systems have to make some tough decisions. And I'm guessing that in some of the cases that you referenced, there might be other situations where people have chosen to forego maintenance on their HVAC systems to provide other necessary programs and such for students in their systems. I can tell you that we have not neglected our maintenance. That's not the issue here. Our issue is just simply the age of our HVAC systems. Some of these systems were installed in the 60s so they're quite old and very hard to maintain.

Mike Hydeck: So let's talk about the your opinion on the possible regulations. And if you think they should change. In some conditions, when it comes to school maintenance, I learned that there is a lifespan, like a federal limit on how long a roof should last, how long other things should last, whether it's a driveway or concrete walkways. Should there be something in our state regulations that address HVAC systems as well saying they should last for 30 years and then they have to be replaced?

Ian Neviaser: I think that's probably not a bad idea. I know, as you've mentioned, we can't for example, if we put a new roof on, we need to wait a certain period of time before requesting reimbursement from the state. And the same could potentially apply for HVAC systems. Again, I would support the idea that there has to be proof of maintenance throughout that time period, if it were 20 years, 30 years, whatever is decided, certainly proof of maintenance, because obviously if you're not going to maintain the systems, that's a whole different story. But if they are maintained, as you know from your own HVAC system in your home, they don't last forever.

Mike Hydeck: So if you prove you did the maintenance then that's the next step you should take forward and you should get proper reimbursement, is that what you're sort of saying?

Ian Neviaser: That's what I think is probably a reasonable and logical approach to it in the future.

Mike Hydeck: So Joe Toner from the State Building and Construction Trades Council was recently quoted in The Hartford Courant saying, look, we'd love to get all this work done. We just can't find enough workers to come and install all of these systems, whether it's roofs or HVAC systems. The construction staff is just not there. Do you foresee that being a problem in your project or has that happened in other projects?

Ian Neviaser: It has not happened to us yet. I can tell you that just as looking at our workforce across the board, I just heard you reporting on the fact that New Haven is struggling to get teachers. I know in our district, we're struggling to get bus drivers and cafeteria workers. So I think that would be a reasonable expectation that there could be a potential struggle to get people to work on these systems going forward.

Mike Hydeck: Well, best of luck with the new HAVC systems. I think it's a very interesting thing to be one of the richest states in the United States and still have schools that don't have air conditioning. I think the average person would be shocked to learn that. Superintendent Ian Neviaser, thanks so much for joining us on Face the Facts.

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