Pinelands High School Reopens – for Now

But Could Be Closed for Entire 2018-2019 Year
By RICK MELLERUP | Jan 23, 2018
Photo by: Rick Mellerup Roof of the high school atrium/commons showing the nails that replaced the ones that were falling.

Phase One of the $53 million rehabilitation project at the Pinelands Regional high and junior high schools has, for all intents and purposes, finally been completed.

Let the real work begin.

Last Wednesday, students returned to the high school building which had been closed since Oct. 13 due to asbestos fears, other environmental concerns and structural problems such as construction screws falling from the ceiling of the building’s commons area atrium. Later that evening, Chuck Romanoli of New Road Construction, the management firm overseeing the project, told the Pinelands Board of Education and a few dozen members of the public that just bits of Phase One work, such as “trim and downspouts,” remained. Romanoli showed the board and audience pictures of the new high school roof while saying, “Fortunately, we haven’t had any leaks; really good news.”

Phase One of the massive project, which was approved by the district’s voters in a second try in January 2017 after the exact same three-question referendum was defeated in November 2016, consisted of replacing the aging, single-ply membranes of the schools’ roofs with new 3-ply BUR and covering the roofs’ masonry rising wall panels with metal. The work was supposed to have been completed before the buildings opened for the 2017-2018 school year in September. Indeed, Phase One had been projected to be one of the simpler phases of the entire project.

Phase Two is much more complex. Romanoli had described the largest component of Phase Two, the $11.5 million replacement of the high school’s crumbling exterior masonry façade, as the “big nut” when laying out the original timeline of the entire project for the school board in April.

Owing to the complications that developed in Phase One, that schedule is being adjusted. The masonry work, postponed from September, now, won’t begin until this summer – and that’s only if the bidding process begins almost immediately and goes smoothly. More importantly for students, staff and parents, the brickface work would continue throughout the 2018-2019 school year.

The original plan called for the masonry work to be done section-by-section while students were in the building. A block of classrooms would be closed and students moved elsewhere while the work was being done in a particular area.

Now, however, that plan could be out the window. And when Romanoli and architect Brooks Garrison proposed a new plan, at least some members of the board were caught unaware.

Professionals Request

High School Closing

Romanoli and Garrison recommended that the high school building be closed for the entire 2018-2019 school year. Garrison called working on the high school building while students were inside a “giant liability.”

Instead, the building professionals suggested all classes be moved to the junior high for 2018-2019. A prefabricated building containing 10 classrooms, a central hallway and bathrooms, could be had for $750,000 and erected adjacent to the junior high building to help alleviate crowding. The freestanding temporary classroom building, said Garrison, would be 13-feet, six-inches wide and 60-feet long. It would be “plugged into” the junior high school building so that fire alarms, announcements, etc. could be heard.

“The building fits nicely into the site,” said the architect.

Another advantage of closing the high school, said the professionals, would be cost savings. Crews could work during normal daylight hours, getting paid lower wages than if the construction occurred during the second and third shifts.

Board member Thomas D. Williams, Jr., who represents Bass River Township, was surprised by the recommendation.

“Split sessions and trailers were never discussed,” Williams declared. “This plan was not discussed at construction meetings.”

“This is the first I’ve heard about closing the building,” said Karen Poklikuha, Eagleswood Township’s representative.

“I can honestly say when we passed the referendum, split sessions were not discussed,” said Board President Susan M. Ernst, who represents Little Egg Harbor Township.

The new plan, said Romanoli, was necessitated by the fact that it had been discovered that the interior brick walls of the high school building would also have to be replaced in “some places.” “The masonry project has grown in intensity.” Plus, he said, the concurrent “interior project (the renovation of both student and faculty bathrooms, new interior doors and frames, new ceiling grids and tiles in hallways, a new HVAC system, etc.) is also complex.”

Some members of the audience appeared to have been better informed than members of the board.

“I’ve been hearing since November from kids that there were going to be split sessions next year,” said one man when the meeting was opened to public comment. “My daughter said, ‘I heard we’re going to start school at 6:30 in the morning.’ What the heck are 10 classrooms going to do? How many classrooms do you have in the high school? Split sessions is not an option, it really isn’t.”

Acting Superintendent of Schools Cheryl Stevenson said that a staff meeting had been held to discuss alternatives and that some of the staff had gone on to discuss the possibilities with students.

“We had to share information with staff,” she said. “Staff has to have input… Yes, we did have a staff meeting but no decisions have been made yet.”

Between a Rock

And a Hard Place

The board of education and administration are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

In October, many parents were enraged that their kids had been kept in the high school while construction on the roof had been going on overhead. But after split sessions at the junior high were initiated, many complained about that as well, saying the schedules of their children, plus their parents, had been severely disrupted.

It is easy to imagine loud complaints being raised if students were exposed to the dust and noise that the brickface work will create. And if additional asbestos were discovered – and why would have builders in 1979 used asbestos only in the high school’s now notorious D Wing when constructing the building? It is not surprising that Romanoli and Garrison don’t want to expose children to those threats.

On the other hand, if both high school and junior high students share the junior high building for an entire school year, a similar uproar is almost sure to erupt because the school day would have to be extended.

Stevenson said that the split session plan submitted to the state in October was only approved because it was estimated at that time that students would be back in the high school by November. The delay means that the district is already going to have to make up instructional hours this school year, with lunch periods being sliced in half to 30 minutes and students only allowed three minutes to navigate the busy hallways between classes. If split sessions lasted an entire year, it is conceivable that school might indeed have to start at 6:30 in the morning for some students, as the parent who spoke had suggested.

So it isn’t surprising that some audience members were aghast at the proposal to close the high school for an entire school year.

“Since when does our children’s education become secondary to workers working a second or third shift?” asked one woman who dismissed the professionals’ concern about saving money. “Most of the people in this room are living a nightmare every day. It’s unacceptable.”

The woman wanted a “second opinion” regarding the possibility of keeping the high school building open.

A man suggested the high school basically had three sections, with most of the classrooms being located in two of them. Why not rope off one section and do the necessary work in it the next school year while moving all of the students to the other section? Then the second section could be done in the following school year. The professionals immediately dismissed that suggestion, saying it simply couldn’t be done.

Splits in the audience quickly became evident. Garrison had said that a priority in next year’s work would be the high school gymnasium. The junior high school gym wouldn’t be able to handle the demands of both high school and junior high winter teams, so the new plan called for the work on the high school gym to be completed by the end of December. But one woman in the audience complained about that priority.

“Everything is ‘let’s fix the locker room and gym, let’s have sports,’” she told the board. “What about theater and chorus kids? You accommodate sports, you accommodate Vo-Tech; what are you going to do for special ed?”

Stevenson repeatedly stressed that no decision has been made and that many options were being explored over the course of the four-hour meeting. But whatever decision is made will have to be made quickly. Bids will have to go out in a matter of weeks if work at the high school can start in late June, early July.

“The longer you wait for the bidding process, the more it is going to cost,” said Romanoli.

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