PAWTUCKET —Concerns over possible dangers with the same type of ceilings as the Potter-Burns Elementary School have prompted the closure of the Nathanael Greene Elementary School at least until Monday.
Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke said that an engineering report that she received late Tuesday showed there were concerns about the condition of about a half dozen ceilings in classrooms and in the principal's office at the Greene School. As such, she made the decision on Tuesday night to close that school as well so a contractor can take corrective action.
At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, also attended by Mayor Donald Grebien, Fire Chief William Sisson and Steven M. Tucker of Edward Rowse Architects, Cylke said that the classrooms at Greene were found to be of the same plaster-over-gypsum board construction as Potter-Burns. She said that Ahlborg Construction, hired to do the ceiling work at Potter-Burns, would be doing the same type of temporary corrective action at Greene. This involves either installing a strapping system to shore up the old ceiling, or removing the ceiling material completely, leaving the joists exposed.
The schools superintendent said she wanted parents to know that she will ensure they are returning to a safe environment to finish out the remainder of the school year. New ceilings will have to be installed in all of the rooms where a problem has been identified sometime over the summer.
Cylke said she was still waiting to hear from the state education commissioner about how many of the missed school days will have to be made up. She is hoping to not have to extend the school year beyond June 28 for the two elementary schools and is asking for a waiver of additional days.
Cylke said that many of the city's school buildings feature beautiful architecture “but with beauty comes age.” When the engineers conducted an inspection of the city's schools of a similar “vintage,” they advised the temporary closure of Nathanael Greene. She added that since the Potter-Burns incident, she asked for an inspection of the city's older school buildings.
Steven M. Tucker, of Edward Rowse Architects, said there were a total of eight rooms at Greene that had been identified with the possibility of “failure” or which had visible cracking or other signs of wear. He said the firm is also in the process of inspecting the ceilings at Goff Junior High School, and will then head to Tolman and Shea High Schools. If there is anything that looks unstable, the recommendation will be to either have it reinforced with the strapping system or remove it completely.
Tucker said an inspection at Slater Junior High School showed the ceilings to be “in great shape” as they had been replaced at some point. He added that for schools that are between 60 to 100 years old, the life expectancy of the ceilings “isn't forever.”
Mayor Donald Grebien, whose son, Connor, attends Potter-Burns and daughter, Alexa, is at Goff Junior High, said he and the other city and school officials were taking the matter of the ceiling structure “very seriously” at the six schools that are of the same construction era. “We're not going to put kids' lives in danger,” said Grebien. “We hope it's an isolated incident at Nathanael Greene, but we're not taking this lightly.”
Grebien and Cylke both said they will have to look at where the money will come from to pay for these unforeseen ceiling repairs, whether it be bonds, money from reserves, or some other revenue source. Cylke said she has also been in discussions with the state Department of Education to see if any of the $8 million in voter-approved bonds that are earmarked for school health and safety improvements can be put towards these repairs.
Cylke, who was criticized by School Committeeman David Coughlin for not seeking that board's approval on the bid for the ceiling repairs, said she has called a 6 a.m. emergency meeting of the School Department on Thursday to discuss the latest turn of events.
School Committee Chairman Alan Tenreiro, who also attended Wednesday's press conference, defended Cylke's actions regarding the construction bid for the Potter-Burns repairs. He said the school chief had been in frequent contact with him and other School Committee members by phone calls, text messages and e-mails, and that he understood her desire to get the students back to school as soon as safely possible in order to finish out the school year.
While noting that the cost of the ceiling repairs is an unanticipated expense, Tenreiro noted that “the safety of the students is, of course, paramount.”