Two weeks ago, a $552,000 plan to install new gas-fired boilers at Nitschmann Middle School sailed through the Bethlehem Area School Board Facilities Committee meeting with a mild debate and a 6-2 vote.
On Monday night, at the regular school board meeting, the issue was revisited in a different light – one with the shadow of Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget being cast over it.
The board voted 5-4 to replace two 53-year-old cast-iron, oil-burning boilers that heat half the school, but only after a contentious debate.
Directors Loretta Leeson and Eugene McKeon flipped their votes from the committee meeting of two weeks ago. Leeson specifically cited the governor’s budget as a reason to reconsider.
"In light of the governor's budget, I don't think we can afford to do this," she said.
Board President Michelle Cann countered that the entire project is being paid from capital funds that can only be used for building projects and not operations.
“I would be hard-pressed to come up with a more pressing capital need than heat in Nitschmann Middle School,” Cann said.
Leeson said the project would drain all of the school’s capital funds, leaving nothing in reserve if there was an even bigger emergency, such as a sinkhole threatening a district building.
Two weeks ago, the district’s engineer, Arif Fazil of D’Huy Engineering, painted a dire picture of the Nitschmann boilers, explaining that a planned $40,000 fix would not be sufficient to keep them running through next winter.
About $120,000 would be necessary to replace certain boiler components and, even then, failure of other components was likely, he said. On Tuesday, Fazil reiterated, describing the $120,000 option now as “throwing good money after bad.”
“Both the boilers failed during this winter. We were barely able to get them running,” Fazil said.
If the boilers should fail next winter, the district could be forced to close Nitschmann for no less than two weeks until it could find boilers to lease in the short term, Fazil said.
The aging boilers heat 70,000 square feet, or roughly half of the building, including the cafeteria, library and school offices, Fazil said.
Leeson, along with directors Benjamin Tenaglia and Irene Follweiler, said the district should do nothing for the moment.
"I believe there are lower cost options that were not explored," Tenaglia said. Follweiler agreed.
Tenaglia said the district has extra building capacity that could be used to temporarily transfer students to other locations. including the old Rosemont Elementary School; the SPARK building, if the district does close the pre-school facility; or Broughal Middle School, which was built to house 900 students, but currently has an enrollment of 600.
Cann called Tenaglia’s comment “bizarre.”
“You’re saying we do not need to be concerned about making sure there is heat in one of the schools,” Cann said.
Though it was not discussed during the meeting, the subtext is that Nitschmann would be one of the next district buildings to get a major renovation, as it is the oldest of Bethlehem Area’s four middle schools. Nothing is currently on the drawing board, however.
Fazil argued that most of the costs of the boiler replacement project would not be lost even if the Nitschmann renovation is done in the next few years. The planned extension of gas lines and asbestos removal from the existing boiler room would still be necessary. It is even possible that the boilers bought now could be repurposed at a renovated Nitschmann or another district facility, he said.
Director Aurea Ortiz was the swing vote in providing the funding to the boiler project, as she missed the two weeks ago. She was joined by Michael Faccinetto, William Burkhardt, Rosario Amato and Cann.
Follweiler, Leeson, McKeon and Tenaglia voted against boiler replacemet.