Workers with an electrical firm install equipment outside the Charles M. Sumner Learning Campus on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

After a late start to in-person school at the new Sumner middle and high school in Sullivan, officials are anticipating further delays before full use of the new $45 million building is allowed. That means the school’s basketball teams will be on the road for the full season.

The RSU 24 school, which serves 462 students in grades 6 through 12, still does not have a fully functional sprinkler system, but it has been issued a certificate of limited occupancy by Sullivan’s code enforcement officer, according to Superintendent Michael Eastman. Students have been attending classes in person there since Oct. 20, but use of the building is limited.

Eastman said the school temporarily has to employ fire watchers who continually patrol the building to make sure that no parts of it are catching fire. Fire watchers are in the building each weekday from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., Eastman said. But there aren’t enough, and custodial staff has been filling in.

Because of the limited allowed uses, students must eat lunch in their classrooms, instead of in the cafeteria, though the school’s food service staff has full use of the kitchen. The school’s basketball teams, which practice at Sumner, also will play all 18 of their games at other schools this winter. 

“We will not be having competitions in the gymnasium,” Eastman said.

Ellsworth has agreed to let Sumner host a couple of games at its high school, 15 miles west of Sullivan. Sumner middle school students are expected to play their games at nearby Mountain View School, which is part of RSU 24, he said.

The school year started in September with Sumner students in remote learning, as construction delays and a lack of a functioning sprinkler system kept the town from issuing a certificate of occupancy for the building. The Long Pond Water District cannot supply enough water pressure for every sprinkler head in the building to spray water simultaneously for 60 minutes, which is a requirement for allowing normal use in the school.

The RSU did not learn about the problem until July, according to Eastman, who said he is not sure why it was not discovered sooner. Mike Gurtler, who became the town’s code enforcement officer in July, said Tuesday he was told of the problem on his second day on the job. He also did not know why the problem was not discovered earlier.

A call to the water district’s office was not returned Tuesday afternoon.

The plan for fixing the sprinkler system is to install cisterns on the school property that can store enough water to effectively discharge the entire sprinkler system for an hour. Eastman said it likely will be another 3 months before the cisterns are installed and hooked up to the sprinklers.

“We’re hoping for the end of February,” the superintendent said.

He said he is not sure how much the cistern system will cost, but that he hopes to find out by mid-December. He said contingency funds in the school construction budget, which is being managed by the state, should cover the cost of the cisterns.

In the meantime, the school is trying to get permission to have limited use of the cafeteria, according to Eastman. Having students eat in the classrooms is inefficient and inhibits the ability of students to see each other unless they are in the same class.

“It is not seamless,” Eastman said of the transitions from classes to lunch and back again. “And students need to socialize with each other.”

The school also needs to hire more fire watchers, to free up the Sumner custodial staff so they can resume cleaning the building, he said. The school can offer full-time paid positions, but is willing to hire fire watchers on a part-time basis, he said.

Anyone interested in being hired as a fire watcher can contact the RSU 24 central office at 207-422-2017.

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Bill Trotter

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....