It’s Confirmed: Pinelands High School Will Be Closed All of Next School Year

Options Include Trailers and Sending Students to Frog Pond Elementary
Mar 07, 2018
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill

It was announced at Monday’s working session meeting of the Pinelands Regional School District Board of Education that high school’s classrooms will be closed for the entire 2018-19 school year while the brick facing of the building is removed and replaced. How will the district accommodate its high school students when only the junior high building is available?

Many parents were not happy with the split session schedule employed from October 2017 into January because of health and safety concerns caused by a botched roof replacement at the high school. And the state of New Jersey wasn’t pleased when the split session plan it had approved grew from an estimated four weeks to 3½ months. Not surprisingly, many BOE members and Acting Superintendent of Schools Cheryl Stevenson have repeatedly said they would do anything possible to avoid split sessions in the next school year.

Pinelands is a 7-12 district, but some of its students will apparently spend 2018-19 attending school at the Little Egg Harbor Township School District’s Frog Pond Elementary School. Meanwhile some Pinelands students will be spending some or much of their school days in TCU’s, temporary classroom units, the politically correct term for trailers.

There may be many other tweaks as well. But first, how did Pinelands get into this situation?

The decision to close the high school building’s classrooms for the entirety of the next school year would seem to have its roots at a board meeting in January when the referendum projects’ architect Brooks Garrison and then-construction manager Chuck Romanoli of New Roads Construction recommended the action. Garrison called working on the high school building while students were attending a “giant liability.”

The recommendation took many board members by surprise. After all, the original plan, put before voters in January 2017 in a $53 million package of three referendum questions, was to replace the crumbling brick façade one part of the building at a time while students attended classes in other sections.

But how could the BOE not follow Garrison and Romanoli’s recommendation? Back in October when work on the roof produced dust, dirt, foul odors and the threat of asbestos in the high school, especially in the now-notorious D Wing, parents demanded, sometimes literally screamed, that they wanted their children removed from the building. The brick face removal and replacement, the biggest and most expensive nut in the renovation project, will surely produce dust galore. And who knows what else might be found when the façade is removed?

But finding enough space for the displaced students isn’t an easy proposition. So the board and administration had to put together a complicated plan, a puzzle with many pieces – as Ernst described it, “Plans A, B, C, D, E and F.”

Part of that plan is the lease of 10 TCU’s. It is actually unfair to call them trailers considering the block of rooms will have its own restrooms and will be hooked into the junior high school for power, intercoms, alarm systems, etc. On Monday the board unanimously authorized District Business Administrator Stephen Brennan to utilize Keystone Purchasing Network of Milton, Pa., to enter into a lease with MobileLease Modular Space Inc. to procure the 10-classroom mobile unit.

But 10 classrooms can’t accommodate the entire high school population. So Stevenson announced that the district was entering a shared-services agreement with the Little Egg Harbor Township School District to utilize classrooms in that district’s Frog Pond Elementary School.

She didn’t say how many classrooms were available or how many Pinelands students would be sent there. Nor could she say what Pinelands grades would have to move across town.

“I can’t talk about the plans because of the need of multiple, multiple approvals,” said Stevenson. “There are still many things that have to be taken into consideration.”

Indeed, even the TCU’s haven’t been approved yet. The district applied for but was denied an “administrative review” with Little Egg Harbor Township, so it will now have to make a full presentation in front of the LEHT Planning Board on April 5.

So many balls are still up in the air that Stevenson said a split-sessions backup plan was also being devised. She emphasized it was only a backup plan and would, if necessary, be used for only a short period of time at the beginning of the school year, “only if there is a problem with the original plan.”

One thing has definitely been determined: When asked by an audience member Stevenson clearly stated, “The high school building will be closed.”

“Not everybody is going to be happy,” said Board President Susan M. Ernst. But, she added, “you wanted your children to be safe.”

Note that this article’s lede said the high school’s “classrooms” will be closed for the entire school year. The district hopes to reopen the high school gymnasium by December. The junior high school gym can’t accommodate all of the teams, both high school and junior high, that need space in which to practice and play.

That plan drew an emotional response from one audience member who complained, “Everything is sports, sports!”

The woman worried about theater and chorus programs being hurt because the high school’s auditorium/theater would be closed for the entire year. She said producing plays and musicals at the Stafford Township Arts Center, as Pinelands did last fall, “is unacceptable” because the kids often didn’t get home until midnight.

She’d taken in the current Pinelands Thespians production of “Cinderella” over the weekend and said, “That play was amazing – the other night, they worked their butts off!”

Ernst reemphasized her point that the plan for the high school would have its detractors.

“In the end, not everybody is going to be happy. That’s just a fact of life.”

In other construction news, it was announced a new construction management firm had been hired to replace New Road Construction, which had been blamed by many in the public for the high school roofing fiasco. The board had solicited proposals from “experienced construction management companies” on Feb. 28 and received three. The winner was Epic Construction Management Services of Piscataway.

The resolution to hire Epic, which the board unanimously approved, stated that “the Board decided that the proposal that best meets its financial and construction management objectives is the firm of Epic Construction because this firm has the demonstrated ability to manage construction projects of the scope and size contemplated.” The resolution added, “The proposal is awarded without competitive bidding in accordance with N.J.S.A. 18A:18-5(a)(2) because such services are considered extraordinary and unspecifiable in their nature.”

Epic Construction, the audience was reassured, has no connection with EPIC Environmental, the district’s environmental consulting firm, which was replaced during the roofing debacle.

It was also announced that another person who had drawn the wrath of several district parents and residents in recent months, Rich Mueller, the district’s supervisor of buildings and grounds, had resigned. Stevenson said the district would soon be advertising for a replacement.

Finally, in response to an audience question, Stevenson said the new high school roof had held up quite well to the rainy and windy weather of the past few weeks. She said there had been a leak in only one room. There were many more leaks, she said, around the windows in the commons area of the school. But those leaks were known and would be addressed in the next phase of the high school building’s rehabilitation.

But resident Dane Apgar told the board that there were plenty of leaks in the junior high school building, which had also received a new roof this past summer.

“I walked the halls tonight and found at least 20 fresh leaks.”

“New leaks have not been brought to my attention,” said Ernst.

Now they have.

— Rick Mellerup

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