|Timestamps throughout this article refer to the above video. For example, “[23:30]” refers approximately to the 23 minute, 30 second mark.|
Written by Jeff Epstein, Editor of Citizens’ Media TV
Copy-edited by Ben Szioli
LITTLE EGG HARBOR, NJ – On the evening of October 30th, 2017, parents and administrators gathered in the Pinelands Regional Junior High School “cafetorium.” The administrators stood in front of six oversized, brightly colored banners headed by the text, “A person of character.” Each banner described a quality that students should consider “a pillar of character”:
- Trustworthiness: Lives with integrity, is honest, reliable and loyal.
- Respect: Values all persons, lives by the Golden Rule, respects the dignity, privacy and freedom of others, is courteous and polite to all and is tolerant and accepting of differences.
- Responsibility: Meets the demands of duty, is accountable, pursues excellence and exercises self-control.
- Fairness: Is fair and just, is impartial, listens and is open to different viewpoints.
- Caring: Is caring, loving, compassionate, considerate, kind and charitable.
- Citizenship: Is a good citizen, does his or her share, helps the community, plays by the rules and respects the law.
The meeting was intended to provide parents with updates on the ongoing Pinelands Regional High School roofing construction project. Interim Superintendent Maryann Banks and District Administrator and Board of Education Secretary Stephen Brennan stood in front of these banners, struggling to answer the increasingly pointed questions of a room of about one hundred frustrated parents. The contradiction between reality and the idealism on the banners was not lost on the parents, one of whom quoted directly from them [27:00].
The September 10th letter by Epic Environmental: Who knew what when?
The biggest mystery surrounding the project is precisely when the various parties became aware of the September 10th letter from Epic Environmental. This is the letter that revealed that the roofing company, Mike Kobithen Roofing and Insulation of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (“Kobithen”), instead of cleaning the roof as required, painted hot asphalt directly on top of much of the debris and old roofing material. (There is currently suspicion that up to 18,000 square feet of debris was roofed over.) Epic concluded its letter by recommending that all construction be immediately halted.
Parents were not aware of this letter until October 2nd, when it “went viral” on social media. This was three full weeks after Administrator Brennan received it. He is also believed to be the only recipient. Meanwhile, students and staff remained in school as construction continued and many minor health issues were reported during this time.
The “who knew what when” of this September 10th letter is a major factor that will determine who is culpable for placing students and staff in harm’s way. Superintendent Banks was asked when she was personally advised of the letter [23:30]. She responded, “For the record, I was not aware of the September 10th [letter] until approximately two weeks ago. Had I known about that when I should have, I would have closed the building.”
Banks was on vacation during much of the controversy, leaving on October 2nd – the very day that parents first became aware of the September 10th letter. Based on Banks’ statement, she was not aware of the September 10th letter until around October 17th. In her absence, the acting superintendent was Cheryl Stevenson, who had a rather stressful first day.
Confirmation of health hazards and contract violations
Despite statements by Banks and Brennan to the contrary, construction did indeed happen during school hours, directly above occupied classrooms. This was a regular occurrence during these three weeks – not the exception. On Thursday, September 14th, the Tuckerton Fire Department rescued an unconscious worker on the roof “just after noon.”
As documented in the appendix at the bottom of this article, seven parents have spoken on-the-record with Citizens’ Media TV. They told us that, during these three weeks, construction occurred directly over the heads of students and staff in the “D-Wing.” Three parents confirmed that the ventilation system was active during this time. Both of these things are obvious health hazards and clear violations of the contract. It was also confirmed that a teacher (who we are choosing not to name) testified at the October 11th Board of Education meeting to this effect: that construction was active during class hours, directly overhead.
Finally, we heard from a parent whose mother is a bus driver for the high school. He told us his mother’s story: While driving students during the summer program, she saw workers on the roof during camp hours on most days. She also said that “the odor was so strong and horrible [in front of the school] that she doesn’t even know how she managed to stay there waiting for the students.” The bus driver observed a school-maintenance worker being taken away by ambulance, although it is currently unclear if the worker was overcome by fumes or suffered heat exhaustion.
(Another source who wishes to stay anonymous confirmed strong fumes in the high school during the summer. The source told us, “The smell walking into the school was overpowering.”)
Apgar v. Brennan
Dane Apgar, a parent with decades of experience in construction management (and last-minute write-in candidate for the Board of Education), challenged Brennan on many fronts. Apgar first asked Brennan when the Board of Education (“your employer,” he emphasized) and the superintendent (“your superior”) were informed of the September 10th letter [24:00]. Brennan did not answer the question, rather stated that he received the letter via email on Sunday, September 10th, then discussed the matter the next day in a “workshop meeting” with various consultants. Brennan said that the meeting was attended by representatives from New Road Construction and Garrison Architects, as well as the Epic Environmental employee who authored the September 10th letter.
Brennan said that the letter itself was posted “later that week on our website, on approximately September 16th or 17th [28:00].” It is unclear if the acting superintendent or any board members were directly reached out to, at any point, regarding this letter or its contents. It is also unclear when the Board of Education ultimately became aware of the letter.
Apgar also pointed out that the contractual completion date was September 1st and that the district has the right to assess the roofing company, Kobithen Construction, $2,500 in “liquidated damages” for each day the deadline is not met. This currently adds up to more than $125,000.
Finally, Apgar asked Brennan, given the long-past completion date and clear contractual and safety violations (not cleaning the roof), why does Kobithen still have the job? Brennan responded that district attorneys were currently looking into obtaining damages. He also said that “one of the hardest things to do in public contracts is to remove the contractor–”
Apgar interrupted him:
Stop right there. I do this for a living. There is nothing hard about it. You take the second bidder. That’s why your first bidder carries a bid bond and a performance bond. If you remove [Kobithen], you could have a new roofing contractor in there within several days. They can pick up from where you left off.
(This was confirmed as correct by another source with decades of experience in construction management.) As Brennan responded, a gentleman left the meeting in a rush, clearly disgusted by what was being said. His family remained sitting. Four parents told us that this person was a board member on the Board of Education. We did not ask his name.
“Stop all construction” versus “stop construction near students”
Here is the critical portion of the September 10th letter by Epic Environmental (emphasis added):
These areas showed that debris was not cleaned in the spaces where there are ceiling tiles present…. Debris was falling to the ground in classrooms 176, 177, 178, and 179. An investigation by New Road Construction Management discovered that the cleaning of the exterior of the metal deck was incomplete prior to the installation of the new roof.
At this time, it is assumed that the cleaning of the entire roof in the areas containing asbestos was incomplete, and small amounts of asbestos roofing remain in the flutes. [Although no asbestos was found in the classrooms], there is asbestos containing debris remaining on the roof deck, and it must be removed. In its present state, there is the potential for roofing debris to continue to enter the school, especially for classrooms with a perforated deck [due to holes left by decaying or broken screws]. Construction activities will continue to deteriorate the debris and will cause safety hazards and air quality issues.
It is recommended that rooftop activities cease immediately until a permanent remedy for this situation is determined. Debris is not expected to enter the areas in question if no rooftop activities are occurring. Therefore, classrooms in this section of the school may remain occupied when there is no rooftop work occurring directly overhead.
Brennan specifically quoted the final sentence from Epic’s letter (directly above) as justification for why students and staff were permitted in school during construction – just not directly underneath where construction was occurring. However, the final sentence of Epic’s letter does not seem to override the first sentence in the same paragraph, where it is explicitly recommended that “rooftop activities cease immediately.”
As Apgar stated, it does not matter how the September 10th letter is interpreted. Having students and staff in school during construction is not just in defiance of their own consultants’ recommendation. It is also a clear violation of the contract — a contract, Apgar pointed out, that was signed exclusively by Brennan.
Apgar stated that, in no less than three places, the contract stipulates that construction may not occur while the building is occupied. Here is its strongest condition to this effect, which is found on page 295: “All roof work shall be conducted… in no case while students or faculty are in the building.” Importantly, this condition does not provide any leeway. If students or staff are anywhere in the building, construction may not occur anywhere in (or on) the building.
|There are two versions of the full contract available for download. They both contain the same content; however, in the larger version (140 MB), the text can be searched and selected. In the smaller version (37 MB), the text cannot be searched. [Unfortunately, the text of the first 206 pages cannot be searched in either version.]|
Other important announcements and observations
Brennan committed to having the HVAC ductwork in the high school made “clean and spotless” before students and staff will be allowed back in the building [59:30]. In the contract, it explicitly says that the ventilation system may not be turned on until it is found to be “100% white glove clean.”
On October 30th, the Office of Public Employees Occupational Safety And Health (PEOSH) cited the district for two “serious” and one “other than serious” violations. The violations are related to the district‘s failure to properly train employees for asbestos handling. Administrator Brennan stated during the meeting that the violations were “mostly paperwork in nature.”
Superintendent Banks announced that, also on October 30th, the Rainbow Express Daycare Center, located in the high school building, was found to have asbestos in its playground. Banks acknowledged that children were known to have been playing in the asbestos contamination for a minimum of two days and that it is unknown when the contamination first entered the playground. This further suggests that hazardous material on the roof of the high school was mishandled.
The high school is currently closed because of the danger of screws (those holding the roof to the building proper) falling onto students or staff. Banks said that the screw removal process was “85% complete,” while further confirming that the students would not be returning until at least the middle of November, or perhaps December. Little Egg Harbor Committeeman Dave Schlick said to Banks, “Obviously, you don’t know construction, but many people in this room do.” Schlick questioned why three to six weeks were necessary to pull some screws that, in his estimation, should take no more than a few hours [47:30]. Banks clarified that removing the screws was no longer the only issue, referring to a new brickwork replacement project that was also scheduled to occur.
Finally, Brennan clarified why Epic Environmental was no longer working for the district. A parent speculated that Epic was “fired,” because their final communication with the district happened to be bad news, as written in their September 10th letter. This is a theory that has been reported multiple times to Citizens’ Media TV. Brennan said that, in the interest of working with only one environmental consulting firm (they had been working with two, AHERA Consulting and Epic), the Board of Education put out a request for proposal (RFP). Only AHERA and TTI Environmental responded. Based on cost and reputation, the district decided to go with TTI [40:00].
A “construction update” meeting
Soon after the tough questions began, Superintendent Banks appeared to try to shut down the meeting. She attempted to re-focus on what she called “the original purpose of the meeting,” which she said was “split sessions and the timeline [28:00].” Banks also said that, because construction consultants were not present (they were invited but declined to attend), these questions were better left for the Board of Education “working” meeting scheduled for Monday, November 6th. She “promised” that all questions would be answered at that time, when the consultants could hear them directly.
This evoked the evening’s most emotional response, depicted in this article’s top photo: a mother in the first row pointed and shouted, “The contractors did not put my son in school. You two did!”
Moments later, a police officer warned the audience to calm down, repeating what Banks said: that their questions would be answered on Monday. Parents shot back, stating that the meeting was indeed advertised to discuss construction issues. Upon hearing this, the officer backed off.
In fact, in a press release written by Banks herself, she stated that the meeting was intended to address construction issues:
This construction topic was reinforced in two other places as well, including in a “pre-scheduled livestream” video on YouTube, which was posted at least three days in advance.
To their credit, Banks and Brennan continued answering difficult questions for thirty more minutes. Although the primary mystery surrounding the September 10th Epic letter still remains, a number of smaller important insights were revealed.
The next construction-related meeting is the Board of Education‘s “working” meeting on Monday, November 6th, at 6 PM in the Junior High School Media Center (or cafeteria, depending on attendance). The public portion starts at 7 PM. According to Banks, representatives from all of the construction and environmental consulting firms will be attending. Citizens’ Media TV will be there.
A near-final version of this article was sent to both Superintendent Banks and Administrator Brennan, about sixteen hours before publication. They were given the opportunity to make corrections and provide a statement. We have so far received no response.
Appendix: seven parents go on the record: full statements
Following is the full on-the-record statements by Pinelands Regional High School parents, as provided to Citizens’ Media TV. These statements confirm that construction occurred directly overhead classes on a regular basis. Also that the ventilation/HVAC system was on during this time, spreading debris and contaminants. Both of these things are violations of the contract, and an obvious danger to health. It is also clear that these problems also persisted during the summer.
Finally, these statements also confirm that a teacher testified at the October 11th Board of Education meeting, that his classroom was directly underneath active construction.
(These statements were given to us in text form. We have made minor readability changes, such as for spelling, grammar, and expanding abbreviations, but otherwise left these as the parents sent to us.)
- Kathy McDowall Doyle:
- “For the record, my 10th grader had class in D-wing in September, where he reported to me that active work was being done above them. He is a student of the teacher who I heard speak about this on October 11, 2017 at the BOE meeting in the JHS cafeteria.”
- Also, from this post: “Feeling heartbroken…went to the BOE meeting tonight pissed off about Benzene levels. Felt better when we were assured the source was determined and the new results obtained today have no traces of Benzene. Minutes later to learn that my Pinelands loving smart athlete who was telling me for weeks in September that ‘my lungs hurt’ to which I replied Suck it up buttercup you have been running your ass off with soccer, was in fact spending a period a day in room 164. Room 164 in D-wing that has no windows and was having air flowing through it with inappropriately removed & not cleaned asbestos roofing debris flowing through the vents. I could puke & am at a complete loss. And then to learn, work was supposed to cease, vents should have been sealed and no one should have been in there [broken heart emoji] SHAME on whoever is responsible for this gross negligence. It’s fucking pathetic.”
- Linda Fancher-Quigley: “I have been to all meetings. My daughter attended classes from September 10th-October 2nd in the D-wing hallway. Specifically room 164 [which held] Honors Spanish, Drivers Ed. [Also] child care which is located outside of the high school, adjacent to the D-wing section. My 10th grade daughter confirms that there was active roof work being conducted during September 10th-October 2nd. I was in attendance of the October [11th] meeting when the teacher spoke and confirmed the ongoing work.”
- Little Egg Harbor Township Committeeman Dave Schlick: “There is nothing to hide. Everyone kept saying our [class] in room 164. I was sitting there thinking wow. The whole school goes thru that class. Then the brave [teacher] also went to the podium and spoke on his own behalf as well as for the teacher. He confirmed everything and was speaking on first hand knowledge and in his own words.”
- Patti Tighe-Rider: “My daughter who is a senior also said that work was being done. She has a class in D-wing and there was stuff falling from the ceiling and also lots of dust. She also has been sick since the beginning of the school year.”
- Dane Apgar: “[T]here are literally dozens of parents who witnessed the work [during school hours], myself included. My son confirmed the work going on, on a daily basis (weather permitting). Typical of a construction site, banging, machinery running, workers hollering (sometimes profanely), etc. NOT conducive to a learning environment!”
- Scott Casey: “September 29th. We were in the cafeteria at 7 a.m. with the male ‘role model program’ sponsored by the Student Base Youth Services. Grab your dad having coffee and bagels. (Which by the way was very successful.) We were waving and commenting about the workers who were climbing the ladder to go onto the roof that morning right outside the window from us the worker had a green Mohawk flat top. I believe it was the vice principal that commented to us about him, because my nephew also had a mohawk.”
- Lee Morey:
I just got permission to post on behalf of a bus driver who shared her observations since the beginning of the school year. This person is my mother, she drives a bus for the high school students and says she observed them working on the roof of the high school on a regular basis since school started this year until school was closed after the BOE meeting. She also said when she drove students for the summer program that initially was held at the high school starting July 5th, they were working on the roof then as well.
She said the odor was so strong and horrible that she doesn’t even know how she managed to stay there waiting for the students. She said it was all she could do to get the kids on the bus and get them out of there. She said it was around this time that one of the school maintenance staff had to be removed from the school by ambulance. I recall hearing a couple reasons as to why, one was that the person was overcome by fumes and the other was heat exhaustion. I have yet to get a solid answer as to what really happened. She said after roughly three days of the program at the high school they transferred the program to the George Mitchell school.
It was confirmed at the October 11th meeting that they moved the students out of the high school because of the odors. As far as the ventilation system goes, I believe either the acting superintendent or the administrator did confirm at the October 11th meeting that the contractor forgot to turn off the ventilation system during the work on the roof even though they were advised that it should not be on during construction.
Actually, It was confirmed at the Oct 2 meeting that the vent system had not been shut down. I am not sure if it is the contractor that is responsible for shutting it off. This is something that we need to find out.
Finally, a student who wishes to stay anonymous also contacted us and said the following:
I’m a student at Pinelands Regional…. I attended classes in room 164 in the D-wing, the cooking class, as well and childcare. I can say that there was definitely roof work going on while we were in class. There would be thuds and bumps during our classes and the teachers and the students would just have to brush it off. The ventilation system was also on during this time.”