Montclair school architects discuss staircase damage, timeframe for repairs
By ERIN ROLL
Montclair will rebuild four of the high school’s staircases after one collapsed last week prompting the closure of the stairwells and blocking entrance to 31 classrooms, officials announced.
Upwards of 80 people showed up to Monday's BOE meeting to hear a report from the district’s architectural firm, as well as remarks from Superintendent Kendra Johnson and the BOE.
The staircase in the high school partially collapsed on Sept. 7. No one was injured, but the school closed for two days last week as district officials and engineers assessed the damage.
The damaged staircase was repaired in March 2016 at a cost $12,000. Johnson said she was unaware of the prior damage until recently when a teacher at the high school told her. She eventually located documents about the repairs in central office’s files.
The prior damage was included in a memo sent out to all parents on Sept. 15, prompting several people to ask when a staircase inspection was last conducted.
A summer checklist, in use in all New Jersey school districts, of work that has to be completed during the summer, does not include structural analysis, said Johnson.
The staircase that collapsed is in the original section of the high school, built in 1914, Greg Somjen, of the district architects Parette Somjen said. It leads from an outdoor landing down to a lower landing. The staircase consists of concrete that was poured into a metal frame. Over the years, the staircase was subjected to wear and tear resulting from exposure to the elements to a greater extent than the other staircases in that section. The concrete wore away until the steel was exposed, and the staircase eventually started to fold in on itself., he said
The other three staircases in that section of the building were evaluated. Those staircases had not deteriorated to the same extent as the collapsed one, but showed evidence of rust and other wear. The architects recommended closing those staircases as well due to additional foot traffic, Somjen said.
The plan is to completely rebuild all four staircases, Somjen said. It is hoped to have the two outward-facing staircases rebuilt within eight weeks. Once those staircases are completed, work will begin on the two remaining staircases.
The district charged Parette Somjen with inspecting each of the schools to identify any structural deficiencies. The evaluation will start with the oldest school and finish with the newest. Inspectors will look for any evidence of settling, cracks and structural deficiencies.
“For clarity, the standards that existed 100 years ago are not the same as those that exist today,” Somjen said.
John Eschmann, the district’s director of buildings and grounds, said the district has also tested the stairwells for any evidence of asbestos or unsafe levels of lead paint.
“We were lucky. Very lucky this time that no one was hurt,” said board member Joe Kavesh, but he added that there was no guarantee that would continue to be the case.
The third floor and part of the second have been closed off, making 31 classrooms and lockers inaccessible. “We cannot have access to those classrooms, because it would not be safe to get them out if there were an emergency,” Johnson said. Classes have been held in alternate spaces, including the school auditorium, which Johnson acknowledged was not an ideal arrangement.
Several of the school guidance counselors are also working out of different offices because of the floor closings. Johnson said parents and students will receive information about where their counselors are located via the Genesis email system.
The school held two fire drills on Friday. The first one, Johnson said, did not go smoothly. “When I mean sloppy, I mean the kids were a little confused,” she said. But the second drill went better.
The district is looking into obtaining portable classrooms to use while construction and demolition are ongoing. The district expects to send out more information to parents on trailers by the end of the week, Johnson said. Some of the items to consider involve deciding where to put the classrooms, how many will be available for district use, and electricity and plumbing hook ups. In a best-case scenario, the portable classrooms would be up and running within the next two weeks, she said.
Johnson said how the two days missed will be made up depends on how many snow days the district incurs this winter. The district is working with the Essex County superintendent and the DOE on how to make up days as needed.
The district expects to post the Parette Somjen report and related documents on the district website this week.
Senior Raquel Delgado said the staircase collapse and the resulting changes have caused significant disruption for her and her classmates. She recalled a ceiling collapse in a classroom last year. She called for transparency from the board, adding senior year was an especially important time for her and her classmates. “Therefore it is necessary that I, along with the rest of my class, know exactly what you are going to do about this situation,” she said. “Is the building really safe? And how are you going to ensure that we learn in the least restrictive environment?”
Some parents questioned however, if the staircases would be rebuilt in eight weeks. Johnson concurred that eight weeks was probably an optimistic timeline.
Parents voiced concerns about transparency, with several conveying the need for more information about the extent of the damage and the timeline of repairs.
“One thing I know about engineers in general is that we never do anything without a plan,” Andrew Gideon said. Sharing more information ahead of the meeting would have been useful in helping to quell rumors, he said.
Regina Tuma questioned the procedures in place when the staircase needed repairs in 2016. “Someone clearly dropped the ball here,” she said.
Some parents expressed surprise that the checklist didn’t include structural analysis. “I guess I was under the naïve impression that public buildings get routine safety inspections,” said Caroline Fell.
High school teacher Brian Ford said discussions centered around the past. “The big answer is, we’ve got a 100-year-old building, and stuff happens,” Ford said. “We’ve got a building to fix, and that’s where our focus needs to be."