The compromised staircase that temporarily closed Montclair High School and has resulted in the school closing an additional four stairs cases and a total of 31 classrooms was first compromised in 2016, according to an email Saturday to parents and caregivers containing an FAQ on the school’s compromised staircases.
Collapsed Staircase Was First Compromised in 2016
According to the email, the staircase in question was repaired in winter/spring of 2016 without the knowledge of “the current administration and Board of Education.” Interim Superintendent Ron Bolandi would have been in charge of the district back in 2016 and Principal James Earle was in charge of the high school. There was also no communication to the MHS community that there had been an issue with the staircases in 2016 or that they had been repaired. There is no mention of the high school stairs needing repairs in this 2016-2017 Capital Budget Priorities projects list.
Instead, according to the FAQ, a determination was made that the compromised staircase would be sufficient if repaired. The stairs were repaired in 2016. On Friday, September 7, a portion of the stairway collapsed during school hours.
As a result of the collapse, four staircases in the original portion of the Main Building were assessed. None of these staircases were cleared for use. These four staircases in the original Main Building provide the only means to access the 3rd floor and the 2nd floor on the original side of the Main Building, where there are 31 classrooms that cannot be used.
In the email from Montclair Public Schools, the District maintains that it didn’t know to repair the stairs during the summer before they collapsed on the second day of school because “an evaluation of staircases is not a part of the facilities checklist nor are building structural analysis completed as a normal part of any school district’s annual facilities and maintenance checks.”
The letter does not detail what kind of inspection or test was done in 2016 to determine the safety of the stairs at that time, or why, given that the stairs had required repair, why an evaluation or inspection was not added to the facilities checklist going forward.
At a March 5, 2018 BOE meeting, a $4.86 million capital budget for improvements was presented by the district’s business administrator Emidio D’Andrea, that he and Buildings and Grounds Director John Eschmann worked on. D”andrea said they made a detailed, prioritized list of projects in all of the district’s school buildings, ranging from masonry repairs at the elementary schools and Montclair High School to a new elevator for the high school. The FAQ does not indicate whether the stairs were on that list of projects. The need to repair school infrastructure was also discussed at the Montclair Board of School Estimate meeting on April 9.
A district engineer and architects will discuss the plan to remediate the four staircases in the original Main Building, the structural analysis at Montclair High School and the structural analysis for each school in the district on Monday, September 17th, presumably at the Montclair BOE meeting.
The letter does not mention use of elevators or how students with disabilities might be affected by the modified facilities utilization plan.
Temporary Classrooms Considered
With students using the MHS auditorium and Little Theater and other non-classroom spaces for classes since re-opening, the letter suggests that temporary classrooms, such as trailers or modular classrooms, might be possible, but the school does not yet have a timeline for remediating the compromised staircases.
“Remember, we must get the potential location assessed to determine how many temporary classrooms could be stored at that particular area, as well as whether there is sufficient access to electricity and plumbing (the Annex parking lot and other locations in close proximity are being explored). Please remember we must promote time on task so the farther we place temporary classrooms the more travel time between classes…” the letter states.
Students will be relocated from the auditorium and the Little Theater to classrooms for Monday, September 17, as a result of available rooms in the Annex during various periods being identified for use. Students and parents/guardians should check Genesis prior to the start of school on Monday.
MHS will also work on a rotational schedule so no one particular classroom is forced to use the same large learning environment. Plans to find a more ideal testing environment for students in classes where teachers are giving a test are also in the works.
Regarding asbestos, a concern for many parents, some who recall the asbestos issue at Renaissance School’s former location, the District hired an environmental engineer to test for asbestos prior to the demolition of the compromised staircase and there was no asbestos found. The District will have to continue to test for asbestos during any demolition related to remediating the stairs.
Concerns about safety, related to the two emergency drills students participated in on Friday, were addressed.
“The first drill was under 5 minutes, but it was not smooth. The second drill was under 5 minutes, but is was smooth and orderly. We will continue to test our modified facilities utilization plan. And, yes, the Montclair Fire Department will make unscheduled visits to test our modified facilities utilization plan…” the letter states.
Students who left laptops in lockers on the 2nd or 3rd floor before the stairs collapsed can inform an administrator to be added to a list. Specific personnel will travel to the closed areas of the school to retrieve laptops, but any binders or books will not be retrieved at this time.