PAWTUCKET — Was it just old age? The reason for the sudden collapse of an original ceiling in the nearly century-old Potter-Burns Elementary School was being investigated by city officials and architects on Thursday as the school remains closed at least until Tuesday.
On Wednesday, at around 1:40 p.m., a 6-foot by 10-foot section of ceiling in a small basement office collapsed. No one was in the office at the time, although it is sometimes used as an art classroom. Cylke said the school's principal learned of the situation from a maintenance worker and called the School Department's facilities manager, who secured the area. The building was not evacuated and the students were dismissed at the usual time.
Cylke said the principal followed the established protocol and that a total evacuation was not thought to be necessary. She said the city's building inspector and structural engineers were in the school assessing the situation until about 8:40 p.m., after which she sent out an alert to parents announcing that school would be closed on Thursday and Friday.
At a press conference on Thursday morning, Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke said that every classroom was being inspected by the city's building official and engineer, the fire chief and fire marshal, and a representative from Edward Rowse Architects, a private structural engineering firm. She said the ceiling was of a type where plaster had been laid over a gypsum backboard and nailed into a joist. Over time, the nails had loosened from the joist, causing the ceiling section to detach.
Cylke said the classrooms on the schools' upper floors have been determined to have the same type of ceiling system, so further inspections are being done to see if these need to be addressed. In addition, she said a piece of the ceiling material has been sent to a laboratory to test for asbestos. She said that while initial results don't point to any asbestos, she will have a definite determination by Friday afternoon.
Cylke said that if any structural adjustments need to be made, these would be done over the long weekend. If a longer time frame for repair is necessary, the school will remain closed and the students relocated. She said, however, that she had not yet formulated a plan for where the students would be moved if that was the case. She added that she expects to have more detailed information by Friday afternoon and will make a determination from there. “The safety of the students and staff is, of course, paramount,” she stated.
Cylke noted that a majority of the city's school buildings are old and in need of significant renovations or replacement. She said a consulting firm had conducted a detailed assessment showing what it would cost to renovate and/or replace all of its school buildings to meet modern educational requirements. An initial estimate had been given of $152 million for the entire district. Also, a Facilities Committee has been meeting regularly for some 18 months to discuss a long-range plan. She added that the school department is planning to put a bond question on the ballot in 2014 to address some of these needs.
While the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), has put a moratorium on reimbursements for new construction, it does allow 75 percent reimbursement for improvements that are made for health and safety reasons. Last fall, voters approved the use of an $8 million bond for this purpose, and plans are in place to do much of this work over the summer. However, Cylke said these projects are for things like new fire alarms and heating systems, and do not include structural improvements. Potter-Burns is slated to receive a complete boiler replacement this summer, she added.
Steven M. Tucker, project manager with Edward Rowse Architects, said all of the ceilings in the school are original to its 1914 construction and are of the same construction as in the basement office. He said there had been no indication of a problem with the ceiling, such as cracks or sagging, and there had been no recent issues with water leakage or flooding. However, he also noted, “As of next year, this building will be 100 years old,” and said the ceiling material might just have simply worn out.
City Elliott Kreiger, media spokesperson for RIDE, said the state requires that an annual report be submitted by the local building inspector for all school buildings. He said that Pawtucket had done so for all of its buildings and the report on Potter-Burns was complete and up to date.
School Committee Chairman Alan Tenreiro said, “I'm extremely happy that there were no staff or students in the room when the ceiling collapsed.” He added that the age of the building is a concern and he can see where the application of ceiling material today is different from the type used when Potter-Burns was built. He added that budget-wise, while it's “a terrible thing that we need to fix this,” it is also good that it will be addressed at this time.”
Tenreiro also referred to the School Department's detailed report assessing the needs of all of its school buildings, and the fact that plans are underway to start addressing the health and safety issues with the $8 million bond. He said despite all the targeted improvement projects, this ceiling issue was “a hidden one” that will now have to be addressed as well. He said he is hoping that some type of temporary bracing can be erected in the Potter-Burns classrooms that will allow for the school to get through the rest of the school year.