PAWTUCKET — The Potter-Burns Elementary School will remain closed next week while workers install bracing to shore up the ceilings throughout the century-old building. Classes are scheduled to resume on June 3, according to Schools Superintendent Deborah Cylke.
The school, at 973 Newport Ave., has been closed since Wednesday afternoon after a section of ceiling in a basement classroom suddenly gave way. No one was in the room at the time, although it is periodically used as an occupational therapy classroom for a couple of students at a time, Cylke said.
School and city building officials had been concerned about the ceilings in other classrooms in the building, since most were of the same construction as in the basement room. The ceiling system involved plaster laid over a gypsum backboard that was nailed to a joist. Over time, the weight of the gypsum and plaster ceiling apparently compromised the nails that were securing it, causing a section to become detached. As a preventative measure, Cylke said that an outside contracting firm is being hired to reinforce all of the school's ceilings.
Cylke also said that a section of the ceiling material had been tested for asbestos and this had turned out be negative.
While annual inspections by the Pawtucket Fire Department are up to date, the last time that a city building inspector had done a zoning and code inspection of the almost 100-year-old school building was on Aug. 26, 2008. On the certificate of inspection covering 2008-2009, “storage room 31-32 ceiling in basement” and “ceiling in storage room #18” are listed among four corrections that needed to be made in order to be in compliance for a “structurally safe and sound” rating.
However, Cylke said that neither of these two ceilings cited in the report are near the classroom where the section became detached. She said one was a custodial storage room and the other was a closet coat room, both of which had visible water stains. The ceiling that became detached had contained no visible signs of any impending problem, she said.
The city's building inspector had signed the certificate and checked off that he had inspected the school plant and found it to be “structurally safe and sound.” However, he wrote that in order to receive this rating, the two ceiling issues needed to be addressed along with a “storm drain back-up in basement” and “flashing all windows top floor leak.” Cylke said she was still trying to determine if those repairs had been made.
Douglas Hadden, director of constituent services and communications for Mayor Donald Grebien, also said that city officials are researching to see if any repairs were made to the Potter-Burns ceilings in response to the 2008-2009 inspection report.
“However, no excuses are being made. The safety of city schools for students, staff and the public cannot be compromised and remains the top priority for the mayor, school superintendent and city inspectors,” said Hadden, in an e-mail.
Hadden supplied The Times with copies of the 2008-2009 building inspection report for Potter-Burns and the Fire Department's inspection reports for 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Hadden conceded that the building certificate inspections of the school were lagging. He wrote in his e-mail that “city and school officials are working together to put a plan in place to inspect all schools per zoning code by mandated end of the calendar year and make any required repairs.”
However, Hadden also noted that according to Fire Chief William Sisson and and Building Inspector John Hanley, the Fire Department inspectors look at many of the same issues that the city's Zoning and Code Enforcement Department looks at during its inspections. These include things such as blocked or limited access, broken handrails, stair problems, etc.
Hadden said that, per Fire Chief William Sisson, all fire code problems cited in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 inspection reports were addressed with annual repairs, and if any issues recurred, they were repaired again. The 2013 fire inspection is due this summer.
On Thursday, Elliott Kreiger, head of media relations for the Rhode Island Department of Education, said that Pawtucket was up to date with its inspection reports. However, he was apparently referring to a health and wellness report that school officials are required to submit each year, Cylke said.
Because of the advanced age of many of the city's schools, concerns have also been raised as to whether other buildings have ceilings of similar construction to Potter Burns. An analysis of other schools' ceiling conditions was also scheduled to be done, although this information was not available on Friday. An earlier consultant's assessment of the city's 16 school buildings contained an estimated pricetag of $152 million for renovations to modern standards.
Cylke said she had notified the Rhode Island Department of Education about the ceiling collapse and has sought a waiver so that the missed school days do not have to be made up. She also asked whether any state funding is available for emergency repairs such as this and whether any of the money in the $8 million bond earmarked for health and safety issues can be used for this repair.
Typically, the School Committee would be involved in approving a contractor's bid. However, Cylke said she considered this repair to be of an emergency nature and she wanted to go ahead with hiring the contractor so the work could begin as soon as possible.