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School ceilings need permanent fix

June 12, 2013

PAWTUCKET — The problematic plaster ceilings at Potter-Burns and Nathanael Greene elementary schools have either been removed or reinforced so students can safely get through the rest of the school year. However, the structural engineer in charge of the ceiling inspections warned school officials that permanent repairs must be a priority.

At Tuesday's School Committee meeting, Steven Tucker, an engineer with Edward Rowse Architects, gave a detailed presentation on the results of a ceiling inspection conducted at six of the city's school buildings. In the wake of a ceiling in a basement classroom letting loose at Potter-Burns, Schools Superintendent Deborah Cylke had asked for a ceiling inspection of all school buildings of the same construction era.

The inspection turned up concerns about ceilings in other classrooms at Potter-Burns, built in 1914, and at Nathanael Greene, constructed in 1918. Both schools had original ceilings crafted in the plaster-over-gypsum board style of that era. At Greene, many classrooms have “drop ceilings” that were installed in later years beneath the original. However, inspectors checking above the drop ceilings found that in several rooms, the old ceiling layer had pulled away from the joists, similar to the situation at Potter-Burns, and some were being held up by pipes and other substructure that had been run underneath.

The other older schools checked by the architects, Goff Junior High, Slater Junior High, Shea High and Tolman High, were found to have a different ceiling construction than Potter-Burns and Greene. However, Tucker said the inspection turned up some concerns about damaged or potentially unsafe ceilings in some isolated rooms at Slater, Goff and Shea, including in the Goff and Shea gymnasiums and in the Shea pool area. All of the rooms cited as needing repair have been closed off for the remainder of the school year.

Tucker said that no ceiling problems were found at Tolman High, and said that Tolman (built in 1927), Goff (built in 1931) and Shea (built in 1940), were in “pretty good shape for their age.” He added that Rowse Architects is finalizing a full report from the inspections and will have this to school officials in about 10 days.

Tucker noted that since the contractor had either removed ceiling material or installed a strapping system to shore up any ceilings thought to be potentially unstable, the schools were found to be safe for occupancy. However, he said that these repairs were “a very temporary situation” and were based on the existing conditions at the time of the inspections. “You need to address this as soon as you can,” Tucker said.

The original amount paid to the contractor, Ahlborg Construction, to do the ceiling work at Potter-Burns was $179,000. Tucker noted that the extra ceiling work at the other schools resulting from the inspections had been completed for about $58,000, less than the original estimate. Still, he told school officials that they must make permanent ceiling repairs a priority.

Cylke told the committee that the next steps are to have Rowse go back in to the schools where problems have been found and assess the cost of a permanent remedy. She said she has been in discussions with Mayor Donald Grebien about how much in bonding the schools can try to obtain without affecting the city's current bond rating.

Cylke also called for a meeting of the full School Committee with the Facilities Sub-Committee to get a report on what the overall proposal is for the city's schools. She noted that the state Department of Education will be lifting its moratorium on general school renovations and construction in 2014 and wants the district to be ready with a proposal to put to voters.

Cylke added that for the past 18 months, the Facilities Subcommittee has been working on a plan to address the need for more capacity and renovations/modernization at all 16 city schools. She said that the recent incident with the ceilings will shift some of the priority to the schools with these problems.

Cylke said she wanted to thank the principals and teachers involved in the original incident at Potter-Burns and also at Greene for how they handled the ceiling incidents. She added that she has not formally received the waiver for the four missed school days from the state Commissioner of Education, but expects it will be granted. The two make-up days for Potter-Burns and Greene will be June 27 and 28 while the last day of school for the rest of the district is June 26.

In other matters, the committee voted to approve the recall of 34 teachers, and a bid for life insurance to be handled by the Rhode Island Interlocal Trust. The committee also approved three-year contracts for the school district's new chief financial officer, Melissa Devine and new assistant business administrator, Steven Frattiello. Devine will receive an annual salary of $106,000 plus benefits and Frattiello will earn $85,000 plus benefits.

Also, School Committeewoman Joanne Bonollo reported that the “Backpacks to Fight Hunger” program started this spring was a success and had served 150 students at five schools from March through the end of May. She said that plans are underway to continue the program next year, which provides healthy snacks for children who say they don't get enough food on weekends and during school vacations.

Bonolla added that it has been estimated to cost $22,000 to $30,000 to fund the snack program for 38 to 40 weekends to about 150 students. She said, however, that her committee is going to change the parameters to target about 100 students for the coming year. She said the volunteer program also received a $5,000 grant from the Bristol County Savings Bank.

The School Committee also recognized current school Business Administrator Thomas Conlon, who is retiring at the end of the month. He was given a plaque noting his 20 years of service.
Follow Donna Kirwan on Twitter@KirwanDonna


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