State officials meet with school district regarding accountability for premature RFA roof failure

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“There was nobody from the past,” said state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-47, Rome, whose district includes the Rome City School District and its taxpayers. “And that was my contention,” Griffo continued. “Accountability.”

Griffo, together with Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon, D-119, Marcy, met with members of the school district and their advisers last week at Rome Free Academy – where the lawmakers could see for themselves the impact of premature failure of the RFA roof – less than 20 years after voters and taxpayers were told they were investing in a $42 million, state-of-the-art high school.

In addition to Griffo and Buttenschon, the meeting was attended by RCSD Superintendent of Schools Peter C. Blake; Robert Mezza, assistant superintendent for operations and management; John Nash, president of the Board of Education; Alex Rodriguez, director of facilities; representatives from LaBella Associates, the district’s architect, as well as the district’s construction managers and fiscal advisers. Also in attendance was the State Department of Education Assistant Commissioner Christina Coughlin, along with SED architects and engineers; state Deputy Comptroller Elliott Auerbach and a senior team including the assistant comptroller and assistant examiner; along with John Maas, director of the Central New York Region of the state Attorney General’s Office.

“We believe that there should be accountability, especially given the significant amount of taxpayer dollars that were used to complete this project (the new RFA building),” said Griffo. “It is important that we get everyone together to discuss, determine and ascertain what can be done to address this issue.”

“It is important to have all parties at the table,” added Buttenschon, “to review what steps were taken in the past, and what planning is being conducted to ensure the taxpayers, parents, students and the school community are informed.”

“The group simply had a conversation about the history of the new RFA building and specific concerns with design and construction from 20 years ago,” said Blake.

While the current district architect, LaBella Associates, were in attendance on Tuesday, they did not work on the RFA project. Missing from the room were representatives from Montgomery, Watson and Harza, a Utica-based structural engineering firm (now no longer in business) and from New York City- based SBLM Architects, the firm engaged by the district to design the new RFA. No representatives from those companies was in attendance at the meeting.

During the May 6, 2021 Regular Meeting of the Rome Board of Education, Facilities Director, Alex Rodriguez– who was in attendance this past Tuesday – replied to he Board’s queries regarding costs of repairs that the RFA roof was in “full failure.”

In response to questions regarding how the roof could be failing so quickly and completely, Rodriguez, at that time said that he believed design flaws contributed to the problem and posited that issues began with the section of the roofing over the pool area, where he shared the he believed the insulation was not properly installed. He explained that open-cell insulation was used, instead of the closed-cell insulation that should have been used due to the anticipated moisture that would be present in that pool area. He also explained that perforated decking was installed, a type that allowed moisture to be absorbed into the insulation. The saturated insulation over that area caused moisture to spread to other areas of the roof membrane, which impacted the seals that affix it to the building. The questions left to the members were whether Rodriguez was correct in his assessment and, if so, who would have been responsible for making those ill-fated decisions that left the check for replacing a roof less than 20 years old on the table of the taxpayers of Rome and the State of New York.

Blake, during that same meeting, referred to the issue of the high school roof as “a disaster.”

While contractors who worked on RFA’s new construction refer to a 19-year-old roof as having been installed “a long time ago,” an article in The Rome Sentinel, dated February 22, 2017, reports on a survey of the condition of facilities conducted by the Rome district every five years to anticipate needs and budget accordingly. The survey results presented in early 2017 predicted anticipated costs through the 2020-21 school year. It identified almost $8 million in needed repairs to the “state-of-the-art” high school, and specified that “a roofing project should be considered for the pool roof and other areas. Also, flashing should be addressed in an area which has experienced leaking.”

At the time those flaws in the roof were identified and, not repairs, but a “roofing project” recommended – and where the culprit part of the roof was over the pool, where Rodriguez recently expounded on possible design flaws related to the moisture in that area – the RFA roof was less than 15 years old.

The district’s architect, who supervised that survey, was also not LaBella, but March Associates.

Griffo shared that, during Tuesday’s meeting, district officials disclosed that a Settlement Agreement had been reached between the district and at least one contractor involved in the RFA project. He shared that he recalled it concerned an issue raised around construction or materials.

“We weren’t aware of that agreement before,” said Griffo, “and whether or not they made the right decision at that time, I don’t know?”

But Griffo did not walk away from Tuesday’s conversation convinced that there was no accountability to be assigned on behalf of the taxpayers who invested in the storied Rome, NY high school.

Griffo disclosed that his concern with the issue predates his tenure in the NY State Senate. He is a native of Rome and, during RFA’s new construction, he served as mayor of the city.

“Obviously the school district is a separate entity, so I would not have been aware of the details” said Griffo. “But we worked together and remained aware of their efforts.”

Griffo recalled that a proposal had been put to the people of Rome before to build a new high school, and was rejected. But the district pushed back under the leadership of Superintendent Fran Murphy right around the turn of the century, and convinced the taxpayers to invest in the multi-million dollar new school construction.

“There needs to be a lesson learned here,” said Griffo. “When we undertake these things – they need to be done with the taxpayers in mind.”

Next Steps

Griffo shared that attendants left with take-away tasks. The district promised to provide detailed information with regard to the firms and contractors who collaborate on the RFA new construction. The region’s Attorney General’s office will be working to determine whether there is grounds for legal action to be taken.

Griffo reminds that both local and New York State tax dollars were spent on the RFA project.

“How does something like this happen,” said Griffo. “We cannot continue to just accept things. We have to ascertain what and how this happened. There needs to be accountability.”

Griffo expressed concerns that some of the contractors involved in the RFA project may currently be engaged in other work funded by taxpayer dollars.

“If there are contractors or firms that worked on this and have walked away from accountability – but are still doing business in the State of New York,” said Griffo. “The people deserve to know who they are.”

Griffo concluded, “The people deserve better.”

Assemblywoman Buttenschon offered this assurance in regard to the lawmakers’ visit to Rome and the ground she hoped that everyone at the table on Tuesday shared in common.

“Quality education continues to be our priority.”

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