By Ron Leir
It was touch and go for a while but Kearny High School – dealing with its ongoing construction – managed to open last Thursday as scheduled.
With about a week to go before the high school was to welcome incoming freshman for a half-day orientation last Wednesday, and a resumption of classes for all grades the next day, the school district asked the town’s building and fire code inspectors to check over “mostly hallways,” a few classrooms and the gym where construction work was being done in the school’s newer or “south” building abutting Garfield Avenue.
Mark Bruscino, director of plant operations for the Board of Education, said the inspectors voiced concerns about areas where the general contractor, Brockwell & Carrington, was doing mechanical work related to installation of a new HVAC system.
“They made some suggestions to deal with those concerns and we asked for a follow-up meeting,” Bruscino said. But, soon after that, Bruscino said, the inspectors returned with additional concerns about exposed drop ceilings and fire detection devices in both the south and north buildings.
In some cases, Bruscino said, the contractor has to remove sections of the ceilings “to see what’s there when he’s running the (HVAC) ductwork through.” And a ceiling-mounted smoke detector positioned near an exposed ceiling section may or may not activate if smoke and/or flames are permitted to vent through the hole to the floor above instead of being contained by an intact ceiling, inspectors warned Bruscino.
Additionally, Fire Dept. Subcode Official Brian Mulligan and Fire Inspector John Donovan told district representatives that they needed to provide a safe means of “egress” from the high school in the event of a fire – which meant devising exit routes that would steer students and staff away from any corridors or classrooms still compromised by construction activity, Bruscino said.
Expanding on those concerns, Town Construction Official Michael Martello, also the municipal administrator, said his inspectors declared the high school “unsafe – the building had been ripped apart (by construction) to no end, fire alarms were not operating, and there was no way to figure out how to get out of the building in case of fire.”
To remedy the structural concerns, Bruscino said: “Any holes we sealed up with sheet rock and fire-rated red caulking, which expands during a fire to wrap around and protect any PVC pipes from melting.”
To save time and the expense of calling in outside professionals on the heels of the Labor Day weekend, the school district – after consultations with the contractor – arranged for Brockwell & Carrington to handle all the ceiling- and alarm-related issues in the south building while more than 20 school custodial and maintenance staff were assigned to the north building, Bruscino said.
Bruscino said the job got done between last Thursday and Saturday, with a big assist from Assistant Town Construction Code Official Anthony Chisari, who visited the school several times, the most recent last Tuesday when he performed a final inspection and green-lighted the school’s opening.
Bruscino said that officials have arranged for safe passage for the building’s occupants and, as part of that arrangement, the school has shut off access to the south building’s basement hallway which leads to the parking garage but basement-level locker rooms “will be used, in conjunction with the gym above, which can be accessed through the mid-campus main entrance or from Garfield Avenue.” Also, Bruscino said that Martello “allowed us to open the weight room which can be entered by the outer doorway.”
Students from grades 9 to 12 who would normally be sitting in any of a dozen classrooms on the second and third floors – being equipped with HVAC ductwork – have now become the initial occupants of the temporary classroom trailers on the high school’s front lawn. Those trailer units have passed inspection, according to Bruscino.
Last Thursday, Martello credited the school district and the contractor for having “worked aggressively to get the situation under control. … They finished the drop ceilings and smoke detectors in the common areas (and) they have established areas where they’ve partitioned off hallways to make sure there’s proper egress. New exit signs have been put up or re-installed.”
As of last Wednesday, Fire Chief Steve Dyl said: “Many of our violations have been abated or corrected to the point where they can open the school.”
Asked for his assessment of the remedial process, Board of Education President George King said that he “had concerns about opening (on time)” and that while the board had been briefed periodically, “we’ll have to look at what transpired and what the time frame was” to fully evaluate the district’s response to the situation. “
On a (construction) project this big (a $37 million, 3-year job), there’s going to be bumps that come up,” King said, “but I do have confidence in our staff who deal with this on a day-to-day basis.”
Interim Schools Supt. Ronald Bolandi said the district did everything it could to cooperate with the town’s inspectors. “We’ll willingly jump through any hoops we have to jump through to ensure the safety of our students, teachers and staff,” he said. “In the middle of all this, I heard rumors about us postponing the (high school) opening two weeks. That was ridiculous. We did (the work). I didn’t hit the panic button. And the town and the contractor worked with us to get it done.” In other school infrastructure news, Bruscino said the district has applied for permits to start construction work at the old Napa Auto Parts property, 174 Midland Ave., where the board intends to move its administrative offices, thereby freeing up its existing space for additional classrooms at Franklin School. Bolandi said an underground oil tank has been removed and the soil has been pronounced clean at the Midland Avenue site.
And, on the personnel front, King said the school board will be meeting Sept. 12 to interview candidates for an interim high school principal and, “potentially, for an assistant superintendent.” King added that the board was “in talks with a potential (permanent) superintendent candidate.”