Setback to DHS cafeteria expansion project pushes back start date

The Darien High School building was completed in 2005.

Town officials have agreed to expand the scope of the Darien High School cafeteria project, which suffered a setback in early April when the construction team discovered a duct bank containing power, telecommunication and cable lines shortly after breaking ground. While the building committee in charge of the project has weighed a few options on how to take care of the duct bank, the power lines must be moved in order for the cafeteria expansion to be completed.

The building committee overseeing the project did consider reducing the size of the cafeteria expansion to circumvent the power lines. However, Eversource Energy representatives have said that the power lines, which run a variable distance from the school and underneath the stadium bleachers, are not up to standard and need to be relocated regardless. Understanding that future projects at Darien High School and the stadium will require this work to be completed, the committee asked that the Board of Selectmen allow the duct bank replacement to be included in the cafeteria project.

As the building committee and other town officials weigh plans for relocation of the duct bank, they will have to decide on a timeline to avoid interference with upcoming events at Darien High School, including graduation and state finals for spring sports. At base, the committee will need to decide whether to continue construction this month and start moving the duct bank right away, or wait until the school year is over to try and complete the project before school starts again in August.

After choosing to defer the project for a year, town officials approved $1.3 million for the expansion of the Darien High School cafeteria as a part of the 2017-18 budget. Students at the school have expressed frustration with the lack of space in the existing cafeteria, which currently seats 330 students. During public hearings they explained that the crowded lunchroom often led to students eating in the hallways or outside of the school. The expansion project was designed to add space for about 60 new seats, with another 35 seats being added to the existing area as a part of a revised floor plan.

If the committee chooses to pursue the project right away, it could cause some traffic complications around the school and restrict access of emergency vehicles near the stadium. However, an earlier start could give the committee extra time to deal with additional complications that may arise.

Led by Superintendent Dan Brenner, Darien Public Schools administration has recommended that the committee wait until June 25, after graduation, to start relocating the duct bank. However with that recommendation, the district has asked the committee to confirm several key factors of the plan. Specifically, if the interior of the cafeteria will be completed and approved in time for the start of classes, whether the stadium field, track and bleachers will be available during the summer and fall seasons and an approved plan for emergency exits and egress from the town’s fire marshall.

Waiting until June to begin the project will spare the town the trouble of trying to relocate graduation just weeks in advance and allow the DHS athletic teams to finish their spring seasons uninterrupted. But if the project goals are not met, the administration could be forced to relocate summer school, youth sports programs and even daily school lunch periods in the coming months. If construction forces the closure of both of the school’s lower gyms, about 500 students would be impacted and the district could also lose up to $50,000 in revenue from being forced to cancel summer programs.

Several members of the RTM Education Committee, a part of the town’s legislative body, had objected to the scope and cost of the project prior to it being approved. Now the project will be forced to take on unexpected costs to complete its objective. Though the estimates are not final, moving the power lines could cost the town about $230,000. This does not include the cost of work done by Eversource, which has been quoted in the range of $70,000 to $90,000, but is being completed for free as a service to the town.

Because the building committee was created solely for the purpose of expanding the cafeteria, the approval of the Board of Selectmen was required to expand the committee’s responsibility. The Selectmen granted that approval on April 24 and the committee expects to move forward with the project in four overlapping steps. First would be the power line relocation, followed by renovation inside of the existing space, the construction of the outer shell of the expansion and then finishing the interior of the newly designed cafeteria.

“It’s an unforeseen site condition which, by virtue of the requirements from the utility, we have no alternative other than to scrap the project and change it dramatically, or move the line,” First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said. “It’s best practice to move the line. Certainly unfortunate that we’re finding out now, but it’s a complicated situation over at DHS.

Stevenson said that while the town usually prefers to go through the bidding process when considering infrastructure projects, the time sensitive nature of the project and the pre-existing building committee warrants moving forward.

If the committee opts to begin construction before school ends, the duct bank relocation could begin as soon as May 21. Darien High School graduation is currently scheduled for June 21, with the location to be determined.