Plans for rebuilding Montclair High School’s four compromised staircases dominated Montclair’s BOE meeting last night, with an architect detailing a plan to repair two of the four staircases in the 1914 section of the Main Building in eight weeks time, followed by another eight week timetable to repair the second pair of staircases.
Parents who spoke during public comment questioned the feasibility of the timeline and Superintendent Kendra Johnson acknowledged in her response that the timeline was “optimistic.”
Johnson started her presentation by taking a moment to recognize and remember Montclair civic leader Wally Choice. Johnson reviewed the email communication and phone messages from the district to parents and caregivers that began when the stairway collapsed on Friday, September 7.
Shortly after the collapse, Johnson received information from members of the MHS staff that this wasn’t the first time there was an issue with the staircase. Johnson went back in the records and found that a repair costing $12,000 was made to the compromised staircase in March 2016.
Johnson also said that while staircases in the newer portion of the building were evaluated and cleared for use, the four staircases in the original 1914 building were assessed but not cleared for use.
Until the stairs can be repaired, Johnson says the district is costing out portable classrooms but that it will take some additional time to get the necessary permits to bring them on site (possible locations include the parking lot by the cafeteria) and to make sure both electricity and plumbing are available.
Johnson said in the best case scenario, these “relocatables” would be up in two weeks and they would help alleviate the use of classrooms in large spaces like the auditorium to create a more conducive learning environment.
Buildings and Grounds Director John Eschmann spoke optimistically about asbestos concerns, saying that no plaster had ever tested hot for asbestos in the Main Building in the past, and that he was waiting for results from the other stairs, but that asbestos was not an issue in the stairway that collapsed. Eschmann did say one stair railing was found to have a higher than normal level of lead.
Greg Somjen of Parette Somjen Architects, the architectural firm for the Montclair School District, spoke of assessing the staircase shortly after it became compromised.
“One section had folded into itself – not the entire staircase, but one from the outdoor landing to the lowest level,” said Somjen of the staircase, adding that because the staircase led out to Park Street, it was exposed to more water, weather and salt then a conventional stair might be and that the steel below the concrete had deteriorated.
It was determined that the deterioration was extensive and required rebuilding rather than repair.
When Somjen’s firm looked at the other three staircases, they noticed the staircases did not exhibit the same level of deterioration, but there would automatically be an increased load on them if they were used. That, coupled with evidence of rust, resulted in the recommendation to take the most conservative approach — shutting down and replacing all four staircases.
The plan developed so far is to work on two staircases at either end of the building. “The clock started ticking on an eight-week window on Friday [9/14]. When the two staircases are back up and running, we would then move to the two internal [staircases] and replace,” said Somjen.
He added that at Johnson’s request, his firm would be visiting all buildings throughout the district, in order from the oldest to the most current. The visits would be limited to visual examinations of foundations and systems, to look for any concerns in structure.
Before public comment, BOE president Laura Hertzog thanked former BOE member Franklin Turner for his contributions to the district (Turner, who resigned from the BOE on September 7, was not in attendance) and welcomed Priscilla Church, the newest member of Montclair BOE, sworn in earlier in the evening. Church, a 30-year Montclair resident, who served as both principal and director of special services at Fort Lee High School, spoke of her enthusiasm for education and commitment to educating the whole child.
MHS senior Raquel Delgado shared her frustration in a prepared statement.
“Given the collapse of the ceiling in one of my classrooms last year, which thankfully did not injure anyone, one would think that the Board would make it a priority to ensure the integrity of the building and the safety of our peers. Now it’s September and instead of students concentrating on their education, we have to figure out how to cope with environments that are not the best places to learn,” said Delgado.
Delgado ended by asking of the Board: “Is our building really safe? And how are you going to ensure that we learn in the least restrictive environment?”
Andrew Gideon criticized the emails from the district as not being as informative as they could be. “Timelines are important, that’s what’s been missing. Engineers don’t do anything without a plan,” said Gideon, adding that the District should share any plans from the engineers and architects with the public.
Regina Tuma urged the BOE to be transparent. “Who was on the building committee? Were you aware? What happened to the process? Someone clearly dropped the ball. We need accountability. You seem as surprised as we are and that worries me.”
Karen Brinkman, a parent and architect, asked whether steel reinforcing the remaining stairs had been considered while the other pair of stairs are being rebuilt. She also asked about safety conditions during demolition in terms of mitigating dust and air testing.
“An eight-week timeline sounds incredibly hopeful,” Brinkman added, saying that she hoped there could be a silver lining, if the repairs could somehow be used as a learning tool for students interested in architecture and engineering.