Nishuane School.  (ADAM ANIK/FILE PHOTO)
Nishuane School.

Debris and ceiling tiles fell in some Nishuane School classrooms earlier this month, causing concern among parents at the 116-year-old school.

Communication and transparency around the classroom conditions were lacking, and follow-up questions have gone unanswered, Nishuane parents said at a Feb. 22 Montclair Board of Education meeting. 

“As you can imagine, as parents, this is a situation that’s causing grave concern for all of us as we send our children into these school buildings every day,” parent Rebecca Josephson said at the meeting.

On Wednesday, Feb. 15, a crack in the ceiling of room 213 was reported to the district’s building and grounds staff, Tyreek Hunter, director of buildings and grounds, said in an email sent that day to Nishuane families. The crack was determined to have asbestos and staff and students were moved to the library, he said in the email.

On Friday, Feb. 17, Hunter informed Nishuane families that two ceiling tiles had fallen in room 202. Students and staff were moved to a different room, he said. 

“The safety of our students and staff is our utmost concern,” Hunter said in the Feb. 17 email.

Debris was also falling from the ceiling in room 211, where the ceiling looked to have water damage, with bubbling and cracked-open paint, parent Claire Kennedy-Wilkins said at the Feb. 22 board meeting.

On Feb. 20, the district brought in asbestos remediators Detail Associates Inc., who surveyed the second floor of the school and confirmed no asbestos-containing material had been disturbed, Hunter said in a Feb. 21 email. 

He announced that all classrooms had been cleared for occupancy by the district’s architect, Parette Somjen Architects, and by Detail Associates Inc.

“Additional air quality tests were also conducted and samples analyzed under transmission electron microscopy by an independent certified laboratory and the results indicate no presence of airborne asbestos fibers,” Hunter said.

Parette Somjen Architects also surveyed room 213 on Feb. 20, along with the adjoining attic spaces and roof, and concluded that the structure of the building and roof have not been compromised, Hunter said in the email.

Aging buildings in the Montclair school district are typical – Nishuane is one of six district schools built more than a century ago. And those buildings are showing signs of their age. Compromised infrastructure, outdated classrooms and constant boiler repairs, have become the norm. In 2019, three staircases at Nishuane were found to be in need of repairs and reinforcements.

While a November vote to invest $187.7 million to repair and upgrade the district’s schools will include substantial fixes to buildings, instead of Band-Aid repairs that have been used in the past, the overhaul will take time. The project is expected to take six years to complete. 

“Just because you’re going to buy a new car doesn’t mean you can’t maintenance the old car,” schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said at the Feb. 22 board meeting. “We still need to maintenance the old car until our new car is in place.”

But Nishuane parents said they wanted more information about the maintenance.

“As is often the case, the communication about these issues has been lacking, which has compounded the concerns of parents and teachers alike,” Kennedy-Wilkins said at the meeting.

She requested that the school confirm if the cause of the ceiling damage was investigated and if it was ongoing, if the attic above room 211 was clear of asbestos and if there is regular monitoring for non-asbestos health and safety issues in the building.

“As someone who lives in an old house, I certainly understand the temptation to make cosmetic repairs when there are signs of trouble,” Kennedy-Wilkins said. “However, I also understand the importance of resisting the temptation to only make cosmetic repairs without looking into the source of the signs of trouble.”

Discovering if the ceiling issues are from old or ongoing problems will be the “difference between a safe classroom and one that is at continued risk for falling debris,” she said.

Multiple attempts to schedule a meeting between concerned parents, school administrators and building staff went unanswered, Josephson said at the Feb. 22 meeting. Eventually, she heard that three other parents had scheduled a meeting and was able to join.

“I’m here today to advocate for more transparency and timely communication from the district in these situations,” Josephson said at the Feb. 22 meeting.

She asked that the district conduct more frequent checks in classrooms for cracked ceilings and signs of aging infrastructure. Classrooms are currently inspected every six months, she said. 

“We need confidence that the administration is taking aggressive action to identify and resolve these issues without them needing to be raised by parents,” Josephson said. “Our children, teachers, staff deserve a healthy and safe environment to learn.”

Ponds thanked the parents for their comments about communication and said the district would reach out to Nishuane parents with information about what is being done in the school’s classrooms and the work to proactively address issues of this nature. 

“Our buildings are old, that’s why we have our new bond coming in to make corrections to our classes,” Ponds said at the meeting. “We are dedicated to having safe environments for our children.” 

Talia (she/her) is the education reporter for Montclair Local and is always looking for ways to view stories through a solutions journalism lens. She has spent time in newsrooms of all sizes and scopes....