LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Pinelands Regional school officials, under fire for a decision that kept the high school open while it underwent repairs last month, acknowledged the mistake during a meeting earlier this week.
After several school closings in October due to asbestos found in the building from a roof replacement project, the district shut down the high school Oct. 13 when a roofing screw fell on a student’s head. Since then, students have been attending split sessions at the junior high school.
During a meeting Monday at the junior high, which was broadcast live on YouTube, parents strongly criticized Business Administrator Stephen Brennan for not taking the precaution of shutting down the high school sooner after receiving a letter from an environmental consultant regarding the high school students’ possible exposure to asbestos.
“I have no experience either, but I understood that letter,” one parent said.
Brennan said that looking back, he doesn’t think the decision was right, but at the time they made the best decision they could.
Superintendent Maryann Banks, who led the meeting Monday, said she was not aware of the Sept. 10 letter until two weeks ago.
“Had I known about it when I should have, I would have closed down the building,” said Banks, who was out of the district on vacation when the school was shut down in October.
According to an air quality test and report dated Sept. 10 and posted on the school district’s website, Epic Environmental, the district’s previous environmental consultant, inspected the area above suspended ceilings where asbestos ceilings were removed Sept. 8.
In the letter, Epic President James Eberts said debris was falling to the floor in four classrooms. The letter states New Road Construction management investigated and found the cleaning of the exterior metal deck was incomplete prior to the installation of the new roof. Samples showed debris from the roof contained asbestos, but no asbestos was detected in the inside debris or air, the letter stated.
The letter warns that there is the potential for roofing debris to enter the school if construction activity happens when students are in the building and recommends that all rooftop work stop while students are in the building. It also recommends routine air sampling.
Brennan said that at a Sept. 11 meeting, the school board received advice that as long as no work was being done while students were in the classroom, it was OK to continue the roof work.
Parents said their children reported work did happen while they were in the building, possibly above the classrooms they were in.
“As a mother, I can’t stop thinking about this,” one woman said. “It’s bothering me. It’s taking a toll on me.”
Parents also criticized the administration for allowing the students in the building while roof work was happening in the first place, which they said violated the contract and bid specifications.
“We were given information on Aug. 30 from Epic Environmental that indicates we were asbestos free,” Brennan said. “We were under the impression there was no danger to the occupants of the building.”
Parents continued to press the administrators on their concerns and demanded answers. Banks said the representatives from the construction company will be at the Board of Education meeting Monday to answer questions.
“The contractor did not put my son in school, you two did,” one mother said.
Banks also reported a soil sampling at the playground near the annex building tested positive for asbestos materials. She said the playground was used at least two times at the end of September but has been closed since the first week of October. The district is hiring an independent contractor to remediate the area.
Brennan said the district also is seeking legal advice on how to get the contractor to pay for the cost of the remediation.
“It should be part of what the contractor is required to do,” Brennan said.
In addition, the district faces a $7,000-a-day fine for allegedly violating PEOSHA by not providing appropriate training to employees regarding asbestos.
Banks said it was her recommendation to the Board of Education that once the high school reopens, there not be any further construction while the building is occupied.
“If we’re having trouble with Phase I, I’m concerned with what Phase 2 is going to look like,” she said.