Pinelands Interim Superintendent, Business Manager Barraged With Questions

Parents Want Answers as to Why High School Wasn’t Closed Earlier
By RICK MELLERUP | Nov 01, 2017
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill

For a while on Monday evening it looked as if the passions engendered by the ongoing construction debacle at Pinelands Regional High School and the ensuing split sessions held at Pinelands Junior High School had cooled.

The crowd attending a 6:30 get-together at the junior high school, described on the district’s website as a “parent meeting to discuss construction updates,” was much smaller than the one that had attended a packed and heated special meeting of the Pinelands Regional Board of Education on Oct. 11 to discuss air quality issues at the high school after it had been closed from Oct. 3 to 7. The audience size on Monday was also noticeably smaller than that of a parent meeting on Oct. 13 after the high school had again been closed that day because of loose screws in the roof covering the high school’s common, “atrium,” area and it was announced the district would be moving to split sessions for an “indefinite period of time.”

Interim Superintendent Maryann Banks briefly discussed when the district will make up the lost five days of school counting toward the 180 days of instruction required by the state of New Jersey.

“I’ve put a proposal on the agenda for our board meeting next Monday night,” she told the audience. “It’s all pending until board approval.”

Banks said she was recommending making up two days on Feb. 15 and 16 (the Thursday and Friday leading into Presidents Day weekend), a half-day on Feb. 19 (the actual Presidents Day holiday) and April 5 and 6 (the tail end of spring break).

“Remember,” she said, “we haven’t even had winter yet and snow days.”

That’s an important point; the district’s schedule had designated Feb. 15 and 16 as school days if needed owing to snow days prior to Feb. 1, and April 5 and 6 to make up for snow days after Feb. 1. In other words, if Banks’ plan is accepted by the board of education, the cupboard of planned make-up days will be bare.

Banks then reported that the work on the loose screws on the atrium roof, the stated reason for the closing of the high school building, was “about 85 percent complete,” adding that “a couple of problems arose.” She then said the cleaning of debris from the high school ceilings was still being conducted. When both jobs were completed, she said, the high school’s air quality would once again have to be tested.

So, she said, the district was still shooting for a reopening of the high school building in mid-November. But Banks then hedged her bet and said the high school would be reopened in “early December at worst.”

Rich Mueller, the district’s supervisor of buildings and grounds, reported on lead testing in the district’s schools, a seeming effort to be proactive in an atmosphere of mistrust that has afflicted much of the district’s community.

A company had done the lead testing in June, taking 20 samples at the junior high and 25 at the high school. All of the results, Mueller said, were “within the limits of New Jersey guidelines.”

But “this year, we wanted to go one step further,” he said.

So more lead testing was conducted, with 50 samples taken at the junior high and 54 at the high school, concentrating on areas where there is cooking or water. A problem was found at one site in the junior high, “where there was cooking.”

Five faucets were replaced, said Mueller, and the water from the new faucets was tested.

“We’re awaiting the results. The water has to be stagnant for 24 to 48 hours,” he said, adding that’s why he conducted the tests over the weekend.

The audience was then told to check out the district website to see the results of the latest three rounds of testing at the district’s buildings. One result sure to raise some concerns – the district’s environmental consulting firm, TTI Environmental, had collected bulk samples from the playground area of the high school, located near the controversial roof project.

“Laboratory analysis of the suspect ACBM (asbestos-containing building material) revealed the following materials sampled to have an asbestos content of greater than one percent (1%). …

“TTI recommends removing all wood chips from playground area and replacing with new wood chips. TTI recommends cleaning all playground equipment and inspecting and cleaning the areas surrounding the building as well. TTI recommends this work be performed by a licensed asbestos abatement contractor.”

Everything had seemed calm and polite at this point. But appearances can be deceiving, as was proven when it was time to open the floor to questions.

Banks, Brennan

On the Hot Seat

The questions were many, often dealing with a Sept. 10 letter from the district’s previous environmental consultant, Epic Environmental, which said, “it is assumed that the cleaning of the entire roof in the areas asbestos was incomplete, and small amounts of asbestos roofing remain in the flutes.”

“There is no evidence,” the letter later continued, “that either the asbestos removal activities or the newly discovered issue have impacted the air quality in the school, and that airborne asbestos contamination is not present in the school.

“However, there is asbestos containing debris remaining on the roof deck, and it must be removed. In its present state, there is the potential for roofing debris to continue to enter the school, especially for classrooms with a perforated deck. Construction activities will continue to deteriorate the debris and will cause safety hazards and air quality issues. Based on previous data, asbestos contamination inside the building is not expected during this process.

“It is recommended that rooftop activities cease immediately until a permanent remedy to this situation is determined. Debris is not expected to enter the areas in question if no rooftop activities are occurring. Therefore, the classrooms in this section (D Wing) of the school may remain occupied when there is no rooftop work occurring directing overhead.”

“When did the board of education know of the Sept. 10 letter?” asked one man.

“I can’t answer that; you’d have to come to the board meeting,” said Banks.

“When was the board of education made aware of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) violations?” the man continued, apparently talking about the discovery of asbestos in sections of the high school roof.

“At the beginning of August,” answered district Business Administrator Stephen Brennan.

“Were the ducts in the high school ever cleaned?” the man asked.

“I don’t know that answer,” said Brennan.

A few people in the audience yelled out, “It’s your job to know. Do your job!”

“You hired an independent contractor to clean the playground,” stated a second man. “Who’s paying?”

“We’re looking into it,” said Banks.

“We’re seeking legal advice on that,” said Brennan.

“When were you aware of the Sept. 10 letter?” a man asked Banks.

“Not until two weeks ago,” she answered.

“Why was Dr. Banks not notified of the Sept. 10 letter until two weeks ago?” that man asked Brennan. He responded the letter had been posted on the district website on Sept. 16.

“Why were the children back in the school when the letter said no one, students or staff, should be allowed in the building?” the man continued.

Another man yelled at Brennan, talking about cancers risks “for years to come.”

“The contractors did not put my son in school, you two did!” said a woman.

“As a mother,” said one mom, “I just can’t stop thinking about it (the asbestos in D Wing). Why wouldn’t you have taken that warning (of the Sept. 10 letter)?”

“There was no recommendation in that meeting (with the district’s construction professionals and consultants following the now-notorious letter) to close the building,” said Brennan, who added that although he would have to look at his notes to see exactly who was at the meeting, he remembers Epic was definitely represented.

“The company that wrote the letter said it was OK to go back in?” an incredulous woman asked.

“Why was Epic fired?” asked yet another man. “The only people we can talk to at every meeting are TTI and New Road Construction (the project’s construction management company).”

Brennan responded with a convoluted answer, saying in the end, “Epic wasn’t fired, per se; they just didn’t respond to the RFP (request for proposal).”

“We were told at a prior meeting that Epic was released,” said the man, adding that he had heard that Epic and the roof contracting company were both owned by the same larger company.

The questions continued. Brennan finally took the stance that the board of education had taken back at its contentious special meeting on Oct. 11, saying he relied on professional guidance.

“We’re going on the advice of every professional that’s involved.”

After a few more heated questions about kids being in school while the roof was still being worked on, Brennan said, “I don’t have the ability to open or close school.”

Meanwhile, audience members were mumbling that they weren’t getting any answers and that Brennan should be fired. They were also whispering to each other that they’d definitely have to make the Nov. 6 board working session meeting, which, according to Banks, will be attended by the project architect and construction management company.

In other words, to be continued …



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