Reopening Pinelands Regional High School Delayed to Mid-December

Divided Board Reinstates Embattled Business Administrator
Nov 22, 2017

The situation in the beleaguered Pinelands Regional School District seems to change just about every new week. On Oct. 13 it was announced the district’s students would have to share the junior high school building on split sessions after a student reported a construction screw had fallen from the ceiling of the high school’s commons area, a.k.a. “the atrium.”

“What if this is not the only screw that is loose?” asked high school Principal Shaun Banin at the time.

It turned out it wasn’t. The roofing company that was working at the high school had allegedly sawn off the heads of many of the construction screws while removing the old asphalt roof surface, creating a clear and present danger. It was stated at that time the split sessions would continue for an “undetermined” length of time.

Interim Superintendent Maryann Banks issued a press release on Oct. 18 that addressed the split sessions.

“We want to stress that this is a temporary, short-term solution, and that we expect to be back in the high school on a full schedule sometime in mid-November.”

That prediction didn’t last long. At an Oct. 30 meeting Banks said the work on the atrium roof was “about 85 percent complete” but added that “a couple of problems arose.” So, although Banks said the district was still shooting for a reopening of the high school building in mid-November, she hedged her bet and said it might take until “early December at worst.”

Even Banks’ worst-chance scenario didn’t stand up for much more than a week. On Nov. 15 she fired off another press release: “On Wednesday, November 8, 2017, members of the Board Ad Hoc Committee and I attended a construction meeting with Kobithen roofers, Brooks Garrison (architect) and New Roads project manager Chuck Romanoli. A representative from Tremco Roofing was also present. Progress toward completion of the roofing project (which was supposed to be completed before the opening of school in September) was discussed and the roof itself is 95 percent complete. We were assured by Mr. Kobithen that the majority of the roof work would be completed by November 15, 2017. This completion date was contingent upon receipt of some materials on order, and any weather restrictions. Masonry construction on rising walls is complete and once the metal panels arrive they will be installed on the balance of the rising walls. Screw removal is nearing completion with a few minor areas to confirm. Air testing continues and all samples continue to be acceptable.”

Except Banks wasn’t done quite yet:

“Given the timelines and delays discussed above, it appears that the entire project will not be completed before mid-December. The Board of Education is committed to ensuring the safety and positive environment expected in our High School and plans to reopen the High School once we are confident the building is clean and safe for occupancy. This includes final air testing in the building, as well as a walk-through inspection.”

The condition of the high school building and the possible end date of split sessions weren’t the only things residents of the district were following in the past couple of weeks. The status of Business Administrator Stephen Brennan also had tongues wagging.

Brennan has been a major target of critics of the construction debacle at the high school building, even since the building was closed for the first time, on Oct. 3, because of concerns about asbestos and volatile fumes. He was, after all, the school official most involved with the details of the construction project.

Some members of the public, especially parents of high school students, had been demanding his firing. Things came to a head at a Nov. 6 work session of the Pinelands Regional Board of Education when Pinelands Education Association (teachers union) President Mel Reid delivered a “Petition of No Confidence” to the school board from the association.

“We feel that it is imperative that we communicate our concerns in the best interests of the students, staff and community,” Reid said, addressing the board.

Reid blasted Brennan, saying the business administrator had failed to display effective leadership, could not effectively communicate with staff and students regarding health and safety issues, did not make sure that employees responsible for custodial and maintenance activity in the high school received mandatory asbestos training, and failed to develop a written hazard communication program.

“Moreover, in the association’s view, Mr. Brennan has not been a capable steward, leading to a degree of dysfunction in our district and significantly contributing to Pinelands Regional’s current inability to maintain a functional, regular-day school. … Our student, staff and school climate has been adversely affected. The association respectfully requests that the board act with a sense of urgency to restore the quality and reputation of education provided by our district.”

On Nov. 8, The SandPaper attempted to email Brennan. “Steve Brennan is currently out of the office,” read a computer-generated response. “If this is an urgent matter, please contact Interim Superintendent Dr. Maryann Banks.”

The SandPaper did so, telling her rumors were floating about town that Brennan had been fired. “Can you shed any light on the situation?” The SandPaper asked.

“I’m sorry,” she responded, “but I cannot comment at this time.”

Brennan was dropped as the board secretary, with Cynthia Hoffman taking his place at the board’s Nov. 15 meeting; and also as the district’s Open Public Records Act custodian, replaced by Cheryl Stevenson.

Brennan, accompanied by an attorney, addressed the board in executive session on Nov. 15 as the public waited patiently to be allowed into the meeting. When Brennan left the building and the public was admitted, a new item was added to the agenda – the “reinstatement of Stephen Brennan.”

So it was true: Brennan had been booted, but only temporarily.

Afterward, Banks told The SandPaper that Brennan was reinstated to all of his positions.

“He was suspended with pay, in accordance with statute.”

Banks didn’t say when or by whom. But board of education President Susan Ernst said he was suspended on Nov. 7, and “the only person in the district who can ‘suspend’ any employee is the superintendent.”

Brennan was reinstated at the Nov. 15 meeting by a 5-4 vote. Ernst was one of the no votes.

Ernst said nothing about Brennan during the board forum at the end of the meeting. But she did take a moment to defend Banks, who has also been under fire from some members of the public. Banks, Ernst said, had spent much of her first year “cleaning up the messes” that had developed over the previous nine years.

Ernst didn’t specify what messes she was talking about, or who was responsible for them. Brennan has been the district’s business administrator for 10 years. Banks is now serving her second year as interim superintendent, the final year allowed by New Jersey policy for an interim superintendent.

Clearly the tension level remains high at Pinelands. That seems unlikely to change in the next couple of weeks.

— Rick Mellerup

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