Workers with an electrical firm install equipment outside the Charles M. Sumner Learning Campus on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022. The opening of the new school, which will serve students in grades 6 through 12, has been delayed and its use will be limited while officials find a way to boost the water supply for its fire sprinkler system. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

SULLIVAN, Maine — Charles Sumner Learning Campus will open its doors to students and teachers next week. But with an insufficient water supply for the sprinkler system and other construction delays, it will be months before the building can be fully used, officials said.

Regional School Unit 24’s new middle and high school will serve students in grades 6 through 12. The district initially planned to open school  on Sept. 6, but construction problems delayed the opening. School is now expected to begin on Wednesday, Sept. 14.

Michael Eastman, RSU 24 superintendent, said Friday that staff will be allowed into the building on Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 12 and 13, to get classrooms ready for students.

“It is a little shorter than we would like,” he said of the two days’ prep time, adding that he is grateful for the patience and understanding of the school’s staff. “We were planning for four days.”

Sumner’s water problem stems from the local Long Pond Water District, which can’t pump enough water to the school to simultaneously discharge every sprinkler head in the building for 60 minutes, which is a requirement for the school to receive a certificate of occupancy, Eastman said.This problem was not discovered until July, he said, when the two-year construction project was supposed to be nearing its end.

He said project officials believe installing two cisterns, which together would hold more than 35,000 gallons of water on the west side of the building, will solve the problem. Having that volume of water on hand would be enough to discharge all the sprinkler heads in the building for an hour.

The expense of installing the cisterns should be covered by contingency funds that were budgeted as part of the original construction contract with Nickerson & O’Day, the general contractor on the project, he said.

“There should be no additional cost for the district,” he said.

According to Jim Harford, construction coordinator for Maine Department of Education, the full budgeted cost of the project is more than $42 million, including actual construction of the building and related costs for planning, furnishings, and other permanent equipment. Of that amount, the state is providing $41.7 million of the needed funds and RSU 24 is providing the rest.

Because of the sprinkler water supply issue, the local code enforcement officer has issued only a temporary certificate of occupancy, which carries certain limitations on the use of the building, Eastman said.

That’s why the building will only be in limited use for the first few months of the school — and why only students and teachers will be allowed inside.

The new cafeteria, auditorium, band room and shop classrooms cannot be used until the water issue is fixed, and there can be only limited use of the gymnasiums and kitchen. The public, including relatives of students, will not be allowed into the building and a “fire watcher” will be tasked with regularly patrolling the building to make sure nothing combusts while people are inside.

“That is what is being asked of us,” the superintendent said. “We are at the mercy of the process.”

Eastman said because of the time needed to find and implement a permanent solution to the sprinkler issue, school officials are planning to have to abide by the restrictions until the Christmas holiday break.

The old Sumner Memorial High School building, which was built in the 1950s and is still intact, is not available, he said. The old building has even more deficiencies than the new one and failed an inspection last month by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, according to the Ellsworth American.

The district would have to come up with and spend additional money on a mitigation plan for that old high school in order for the code enforcement officer to issue a temporary occupancy certificate for it, Eastman said. As things stand, only administrators and custodial staff are being allowed to use the old high school.

Instead, administrators are working on temporary solutions, such as allowing students to eat lunch in their classrooms, so that all normal school activities can still take place in the new building. The school is scheduling only away games for the early part of the basketball season in hopes that home games can be played, and the public can attend, in January.

There are other delays to finishing the new building in addition to the sprinkler problem.

None of the new student lockers have arrived or been installed — which Eastman said appears to be a supply-chain issue caused by the pandemic — and a retractable wall to separate the cafeteria and auditorium still needs to be procured. A subcontractor that was going to fabricate and install the retractable wall has gone out of business, Eastman said, so Nickerson & O’Day has to find a new company for that job.

The anticipated construction schedule was considered fairly ambitious and tight even before ground was broken on the project, he said. Since then, the completion deadline has been extended “a number of times.”

School district officials share the frustration felt by students, families and community members over the delays and complications, Eastman said.

“It is truly beyond our control,” he said. “The two-plus years of the pandemic exacerbates the situation we are in. But in the end, it will be worth the wait.”

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....