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Damaged schools may tap state aid

‘Last resort’ for districts fixing roofs after storms

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / February 10, 2011

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State officials announced yesterday that schools damaged by heavy snow can apply for emergency assistance, while urging towns to make sure older schools are prepared for severe weather.

“Maintenance is a huge issue,’’ said Katherine Craven, who directs the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The authority reimburses communities for school construction projects.

Blanketed by the snow of several snowstorms, the roof of an elementary school in Georgetown partially gave way last week, closing the building for several days.

A number of other school systems have reported snow damage this month or canceled classes to clear roofs threatened by huge piles of snow and ice.

While extending hope for state funds, Craven said only buildings that were declared unsafe would be eligible and that other sources, including insurance, must be tapped first.

“The state is the last resort,’’ she said, adding that applications would be judged on how urgent the need is. The state has not received any requests so far.

Newer schools, built under more stringent construction codes, should hold up through even the harshest winters, she added.

“This won’t happen in the new schools,’’ she said. “It’s a new era. The new codes are very expansive.’’

Individual towns are responsible for maintaining school buildings, but the building authority works with local officials to decide between renovating existing schools or building new ones.

Steven Grossman — who, as the state’s treasurer, oversees the building agency — said the recent collapse in Georgetown and concerns in other districts are worrisome.

He said state and local officials may discuss ways to bolster schools against the elements.

Noting that most schools have large, flat roofs susceptible to problems from heavy snow, Craven said she would consult with engineers to determine whether designs of new schools should include sloped roofs. More than 150 roofs have collapsed in the past week, officials report, and nearly all have been flat.

“It seems the design isn’t appropriate for New England,’’ said Raymond Estes, a school board member in Hingham, where the middle school was closed last week after cracks were discovered in ceiling beams. Estes said it was fortunate teachers heard cracking sounds just before the end of the school day so there was time for preventive measures.

The roof has been reinforced, and students have returned to class. A structural engineer also inspected five other schools in town, Estes said.

Yet in Georgetown, the roof that partially collapsed was pitched, stunning school officials who were more concerned about other, flat-topped schools.

“You could not have predicted this,’’ said Superintendent Carol Jacobs. “I thought if we were going to have a problem, it would have been at the high school,’’ which has a flat roof.

There were no injuries at the elementary school, and damage to the inside of the building was minimal because the collapsed roof, part of a renovation in the 1970s, fell onto a previously built concrete roof underneath, she said.

The school reopened yesterday, except for the affected wing. Students in that section will be moved elsewhere in the building and to new portable classrooms.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.