WELLFLEET — Three years ago, Fire Chief Richard Pauley raised an alarm about the nonexistent sprinkler system at the Wellfleet Elementary School — a violation of the state building code.
Now town meeting voters will be asked to pay the price of an ill-advised decision made 32 years ago: a $2.2-million debt exclusion to pay for installing the fire suppression system. A debt exclusion temporarily increases taxes during the life of a project’s loan.
Continued operation of the school without a sprinkler system could cause the state to deem the building unusable, Pauley told the Independent.
If sprinklers aren’t installed, “at some point the fire marshal will order it to be done,” Pauley said. “The worst-case scenario is, if it’s still not done, an order will come down from the state to have the building evacuated.” The town would have to “come up with another school or another way for kids to go to school,” he said.
Mass. Dept. of Fire Services spokesperson Jake Wark said that, if there are violations of the building code, the local building commissioner would first take action. Under Mass. General Laws, “the fire chief should notify the building official of any building code violations he observes,” Wark stated.
The project is the largest capital expenditure on this year’s draft annual town meeting warrant, which includes at least another $900,000 worth of debt exclusions for new police and fire staff and a new fire engine.
In addition, voters at the April 25 town meeting will be asked to approve a $1.3-million Proposition 2½ override, which Charlie Sumner, the interim town administrator, said is needed to fund last year’s budget shortfalls, maintain town services at their current levels, and fund routine capital projects like repairs and truck replacements. An override permanently raises the town’s property tax levy — that is, the total amount the town may collect.
Both debt exclusions and the override must be approved by two-thirds votes at town meeting and by majority votes at the annual town election on May 2.
“It has to be fixed, but it’s a lot of money and it comes at a bad time,” Pauley said. “It needs to be done, first of all, to protect the occupants of the building — the 150 or so students, the faculty, and staff, but also to protect the investment the town has in this building.”
If the sprinkler system had been installed when the school was renovated in 1990, it would have cost about $300,000.
“Now that you have to retrofit the sprinkler system into an existing building built at two time periods, the cost has increased five or six times,” Pauley said.
Town officials pulled an article to fund the new sprinkler system from last year’s town meeting warrant to reduce expenses while they were grappling with chaotic financial records.
Even if it passes at town meeting April 25, construction cannot begin until the summer of 2023, said Jim Nowak, assistant director of finance and operations for the Nauset Schools. That is because construction can be done only when school is not in session, and there is not enough time to get bids lined up for the summer of 2022.
Long Time Coming
Pauley discovered that the school had no sprinklers during a routine inspection in November 2018.
He told the school committee on Nov. 13, 2018, according to the meeting minutes.
School committee chair Martha Gordon was new to the five-person committee at the time. “It was really discouraging,” she told the Independent.
In 2020, town meeting voters agreed to spend $110,000 to have the engineering firm Habib and Associates design a sprinkler system for the school.
When the original building was built in the 1950s, sprinkler systems were not required under state law. “But when the building was expanded in 1990, building codes required not only that the addition have sprinklers but that also the old portion of the building be retrofitted for sprinklers,” Pauley said.
But the school building committee and town administrator at the time, Julia Enroth, approved the renovation without a sprinkler system, violating the law. According to George Malloy, the acting fire chief in 1990, the sprinklers were cut as a cost-saving measure. He strongly opposed it, he said, but was overruled by Enroth.
The building code has evolved since the 1990s. Automatic sprinkler systems for any building of more than 7,500 square feet have been required since 2009.
Between 2016 and 2020, there were 640 fires in Massachusetts schools that caused $7.8 million in property damage, according to the state’s division of fire safety. Fires at the Rollins School in Lawrence in 2017 and at Palmer High School in 2019 each exceeded $2 million in damage. The Rollins School had sprinklers “which helped keep that fire in check,” but Palmer High School did not, Wark said.
Wellfleet Elementary School is basically all wood, Pauley said. “If you have an automatic fire suppression system that’s fully maintained and up to date, between 95 and 98 percent of the time, if there’s a fire in that building, the fire is contained to one room,” he said. “That’s an important concept compared to potentially losing the whole building to fire.”