NEW ROCHELLE, NY — With the closing of Webster Elementary School for most, if not all, of the upcoming 2015-16 school year, this appears to be a good time to end our 5 month hiatus on this series. We will get into Webster School, the Albert Leonard Boilers, Barnard School and more. And don’t worry, we have not forgotten about Scott Empara, the school electrician found to be making bullets in his school district office and some of the other more incredible incidents.
If you want your dessert, however, you are going to need to eat your vegetables so I am returning to this series with an ask that you, the reader, do some heavy lifting. I feel it is important to cover this ground in detail because in this case the District has been jeopardizing the lives of students and staff in our schools for years but specifically over the last year and folks need to really understand the law, the reports and the truth so that they will not be fooled by the deception being practiced by Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne and the school board. They are trying to sell the idea that the District did take action to fix problems and that somehow the Webster ceiling collapse was unexpected, unforeseeable and, most importantly to them, not their fault. In fact, it is their fault which is why their deceptions are so important to them.
Whatever else readers take away from this article there are two points I will be making over and over again until they are addressed. It is my hope that parents and residents can bring pressure to bear and force the release of certain information:
First, why hasn’t the district made public the full, un-redacted version of the Building Condition Survey report prepared in the Spring of 2014 by Mike Orifici of Capital Projects Consulting?
Second, Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne rejected the recommendations delivered with this report, to move immediately to borrow $40 million for desperately needed repairs. What reason did he give for rejecting these recommendations?
The Orifici Report (Building Condition Survey) is a thorough and unsparing examination of the true condition of buildings owned and operated by the City School District of New Rochelle, the first of its kind after decades of lies and obfuscation and misallocation of resources to fund kickback schemes. That report identifies major problems requiring urgent action to protect the safety of students and staff. The report prioritizes the most dangerous situations. It includes warnings about the boilers at Albert Leonard Middle School a year before they broke down and the school lost all “perimeter heat” pushing temperatures in classrooms below the legal minimum. The report includes warnings about the roof/ceiling at Webster Elementary School. More to the point, the report contains many other warnings of similar dangerous situations.
Don’t parents have the right to know if Osborne is playing Russian Roulette with the lives of their children like he did at Webster?
Talk of the Sound has filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain the report. We are told we will get the report before the school year begins. Based on past experience, it is likely to be heavily redacted. Why? It does not contain personal or medical information about students or staff? There is nothing that requires the report to be redacted. The District redacts reports because they can and leave it up to folks like me to challenge them in a legal process which is very expensive for me and costs them, personally, nothing (they are spending your money to keep your records about your kid’s safety secret!).
Records already obtained by Talk of the Sound show that the District was quite well aware of the problems with the roof, ceiling and walls at Webster Elementary School. Worse, they knew the work was required urgently. Under New York State law, when there is an issue with a building that presents a risk to the “health and safety” of the occupants, the AVI report must indicate a dollar figure for the repair. In other words, this report by including dollar amounts, identifies the roof, ceiling and interior walls to be a health and safety risk.
- Roof: “Cost to Reconstruct/Replace $20,000 – general maintenance $50,000 – slate roof maintenance.”
- Ceilings: “Cost to Reconstruct/Replace $24,000. Repair water damaged plaster. Replace stained ceiling tiles. Plaster ceiling needs repairs, starting to peel at Auditorium ($4,000), at Janitor closet and at room 206 at windows. Classroom 215 has stained ceiling tiles at exterior corner. Replace missing ceiling tile at room 219. Patch holes in custodian closet ceiling.”
- Interior Walls: “Cost to Reconstruct/Replace $25,000 + $1,500, $1,200 – Nurse. Repair water damaged plaster areas throughout, prep and Repair water damaged plaster areas throughout, prep and paint – CR (classroom) 204, stairwell at exit #2…Plaster damage in room 205 – repair is being damaged again.
The report states that the roof support system (Beams/Joists/Trusses, etc.) was NOT inspected. It is this roof support system that collapsed into Classroom 204.
The report specifically cites Classroom 204 as well as rooms around it, all of which were declared unsafe by Dr. Osborne in his open letter to parents two weeks ago. It is the repairs to those classrooms that has shut down the building for the 2015-16 school year. Despite claims by Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne, it is not certain that Webster will re-open this school year. It is not up to them. A Certificate of Occupancy has to be issued by the New York State Education Department (“NYSED”). In fact, NYSED officials last winter told Talk of the Sound that the reason not to move students and staff out of Albert Leonard Middle School due to the lack of heat was because once students go through the disruption of relocating to a different building, NYSED feels it is just as disruptive to move back, that it is better for a school community to remain in place at the new location for the entire school year. Wouldn’t that apply to Webster being moved to Holy Family?
As a side note, consider the irony that having failed to maintain and make legal their own schools, the District now has the taxpayer funding repairs at Holy Family School which has been empty for years and recently leased by Iona College. As a Catholic, I certainly appreciate the public school system funding repairs at Catholic schools with taxpayer dollars.
Again, the idea that the ceiling collapse at Webster was some unforeseeable act of nature is false based on the district’s own records. They knew it was dangerous.
This brings me to another point. Many parents have said to me “thank goodness this happened over the summer.” That response entirely misses the point. Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne was told that some of the schools, including Webster, were ticking time bombs that could go off at any moment. Osborne was willing to gamble with the lives of students and staff so as to avoid bonding for $40 million. Rather than be thankful that this happened when no one was in the room, folks ought to wake up to the fact that 5 feet of plaster, wood and other debris fell on top of what could well have been an entire classroom full of young children, that this could have happened at any time over the past year, that this was a conscious decision not to repair (or even inspect) the ceiling which was, by the report, showing signs of rot, decay, corrosion, failures, splits, crack, water penetration and active leaks. Only now, after TWO ceiling collapses (did I mention the music room at Barnard School collapsed the day after the Webster ceiling collapsed?) does Osborne announce that he has directed that all ceilings in the District be inspected. Talk about a day late and dollar short. That should have been done more than a year ago.
Any idea how much 5′ x 10′ feet worth of debris weighs? Plaster weights about 10 pounds per square foot. Do the math. Every kid under the pile would have been crushed to death by 1-2 tons of building debris. And so we should be thankful that Osborne’s decision did not kill any children? That strikes me as a very low bar for success.
The Webster situation is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the past years, Talk of the Sound obtained under a Freedom of Information request sets of records required under state and federal law regarding “health and safety” issues with the buildings owned and operated by the City School District of New Rochelle. What follows below are the complete set of all current Annual Visual Inspection Reports, as well as the Five Year Capital Plan and AHERA Triennial Asbestos Inspection broken down by school building.
Readers will note that the 2013 AVI reports are very different than previous AVI reports. In the past, a company called The Facilities Management Group (“TMFG”) performed the Annual Visual Inspections. In 2010, Ivan Carrasquillo of TMFG walked through each building and performed the last “annual” inspection prior to Orifici doing so three years later in 2013. The 2013 AVI inspections were conducted by Michael Orifici of Capital Projects Consulting without the interference of former Assistant Superintendent for Business & Administration John Quinn or former Director of Environmental Services and Aramark consultant John Gallagher. In other words, they represent the first honest assessment of buildings in the New Rochelle school district in decades.
In 2014, Orifici was commissioned to provide two other reports: (1) a review of 6 randonly chosen articles from Talk of the Sound which identified massive waste, fraud and abuse on capital projects under Quinn and Gallagher; (2) a comprehensive Building Condition Survey. The first concurred the allegations of corruption in the 6 articles were well founded and went further, citing a variety of failures. The second is a document that Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne does not want the public to see, the recommendations contained in the comprehensive Building Condition Survey.
The latter document shows that Osborne was well aware of the safety risks in New Rochelle schools. The document contradicts the claims made in his recent open letter to Webster parents in which he made two true statements but told a lie. He stated that upon starting his new job he was informed of the problems with the buildings (true) and that he “acted immediately” (true). What he leaves out is that he received recommendations to address those problems, rejected those recommendations and when he “acted immediately” he was not acting on the recommendations he received. His “immediate action” was to apply band aids to buildings that were hemorraging form years of neglect.
In his letter to Webster parents, Osborne closed by claiming that the safety of students and staff is his greatest concern. Considering that he knew of the conditions of Webster, had his entire team pressing him to undertake full-scale repairs, did not do so and by failing to heed the advice of his team, left dozens of students and staff in harm’s way for over a year until the ceiling gave way, this statement is demonstrably false on the facts.
Osborne’s entire team including Orifici repeatedly warned Osborne that Osborne’s proposed solution, several weeks of patch work over the summer of 2014, was not sufficient. He was told that the school buildings required urgent attention requiring up to $40 million in funding. What Osborne was advised to do by his entire team was to move immediately to bond for $40 million so work could begin to undertake the massive repair work required in the district’s buildings. What he did was the absolute bare minimum to be able to claim later, as he is doing now, that he did not do nothing. To present this as having “acted immediately” is as unsupportable as it is offensive.
The good news is that I finally got an offer of help from an expert to look at some of the records I have collected, the Webster AVI reports. I would welcome other expert assistance to go through other reports from the other schools and help write an analysis of each one. In the meantime, parents and residents are welcome (and strongly encouraged) to review the entire set, pick out their own children’s schools and download them. Few make for pleasant reading.
One of the flagged “urgent” items was the boiler situation at Albert Leonard Middle School where the school was going to go into the winter of 2014-15 with just one functioning boiler. When that bolier failed in March 2015, rather than fix it, Osborne sought to hide that information from the public. Talk of the Sound exposed the problem (full disclosure, my daughter was attending ALMS at the time). I even managed to get the head of Facilities for the New York State Education Department to visit Albert Leonard who just happened to be in New Rochelle after a letter-writing campaign by parents at Trinity School to get their concerns about Trinity addressed Trinity, Isaac and Columbus parents are certainly going to want to review the reports for those schools.
Annual Visual Inspection Report 2013
AHERA Triennial Inspection 2013
Five Year Capital Plan & Executive Summary 2010
Annual Visual Inspection Report 2010-2013
Annual Visual Inspection Report 2010-2012
Annual Visual Inspection Report 2008-2009 NRHS
Annual Visual Inspection Report 2005-2006
The complete regulations are linked here: OFFICIAL COMPILATION OF CODES, RULES AND REGULATIONS OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, TITLE 8. EDUCATION DEPARTMENT CHAPTER II. REGULATIONS OF THE COMMISSIONER SUBCHAPTER J. BUILDINGS AND TRANSPORTATION PART 155. EDUCATIONAL FACILITIES.
As a backgrounder for those who did not read my previous articles, New York State law requires that public school districts conduct regular Building Condition Surveys and Annual Visual Inspections (AVIs) be performed to strict standards by persons licensed by the state and district employees. As Talk of the Sound has been reporting for years, these Building Condition Surveys and AVI reports have largely been a farce, not conducted in a manner required by New York State and not performed by required persons. For years, the district completed AVI reports by hiring an outside consultant who went around the district once a year then turned in reports to John Gallagher of Aramark, another outside consultant. Inexplicably, these required legal documents were signed by Gallagher who was not a district employee and whose contract with Aramark specifically prohibiting him signing legal documents on behalf of the district. These documents should have been signed by Assistant Superintendent for Business & Administration John Quinn or Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak but were not.
Talk of the Sound has written extensively about the failure of the District and the School board to appoint and convene a School Safety Committee as required under the New York State Safe Schools Against Violence in Education (SAVE) law. For more than a decade, the City School District of New Rochelle simply ignored this law — failing to update records, failing to appoint committee members and failing to meet each year to update the districtwide and building level plans.
People had to die before the New Rochelle Board of Education addressed the failure to implement the SAVE law in New Rochelle. It was only after 20 students and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT that the district grudgingly began to take steps to correct deficiencies in school security. Today, even those gains are now tenuous due to a lack of follow through by school officials and complacency among staff.
For parents and residents who wanted to know what is required by law, rather than self-serving clap-trap offered by Dr. Osborne in his recent letters to Webster parents, the New York State Education Department has posted the actual information on their web site.
OFFICIAL COMPILATION OF CODES, RULES AND REGULATIONS OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK TITLE 8. EDUCATION DEPARTMENT CHAPTER II. REGULATIONS OF THE COMMISSIONER SUBCHAPTER J. BUILDINGS AND TRANSPORTATION PART 155. EDUCATIONAL FACILITIES
The information is offered with the understanding that few parents will bother to take the time to click the link above and familiarize themselves with the law when it is easier to rely on the “happy talk” and soothing words offered by school officials. When more chunks of plaster and wood beams collapse into a classroom — next time perhaps crushing children and staff underneath — those parents who read this article and skipped the “hard work” of clicking the link above to read the actual law will not be able to say “no one told me”. You’ve been told. If you are too lazy to bother to protect your children from the ne’er do-wells who have been running the facilities management in the New Rochelle school system that’s on you. Harsh? If it motivates you to read the law then being harsh has served its purpose.
To fully understand the depth and nature of the failures of officials of the City School District of New Rochelle it is important to understand who is legally responsible for “health and safety” issues in public schools at a local level.
Each district is required by law to have a “school district health and safety committee”. This is not optional. Commissioner’s Regulation 8 NYCRR 155 defines the requirement to establish a health and safety committee, as well as its core and expanded membership. Unlike other committees required by regulation which focus on concerns related to actions and interactions of students, staff, and parents, such as such as the committees required by the SAVE legislation, the focal point of the health and safety committee is the physical plant or actual school facility. This includes but is not limited to concerns related to indoor air quality, pest management, and safety during construction.
The health and safety committee’s requisite core and expanded membership defined in sections 155.4 and 155.5 of regulation must be followed. It must include representation from district officials, staff, bargaining units and parents.
The guidelines state the Health and Safety Committee needs to have a well publicized list of contact persons including locations and phone numbers for persons to contact to registering concerns, hold scheduled public meetings, a protocol for monitoring construction and maintenance projects, a protocol for immediate notification to the district’s chain of command, a protocol to track complaints in writing, a protocol for investigations, inspections, or tests which address complaints, a protocol for disposing of complaints after action or due consideration, a file for maintaining records of complaints and copies of written responses, a protocol for making records available to the public upon request.
I have followed this for years and am unaware that ANY of this exists.
That said, I have made a request for further information from the District including a FOIL request to review all of the complaints filed and the responses and information about public meetings of the Health and Safety Committee. If the District has much if any of this I will be surprised.
In closing, I want to provide a few excerpts from the regulation highlighting the Health and Safety Committee’s membership and roles.
Section 155.4 Uniform Code of Public School Building Inspections, Safety Rating and Monitoring:
(d) Monitoring system. Boards of education and boards of cooperative educational services shall establish a process to monitor the condition of occupied public school buildings in order to assure that they are safe and maintained in a state of good repair…:
(1) Establishment of a Health and Safety Committeee comprised of representation from district officials, staff, bar-gaining units, and parents. In addition to having a Health and Safety Committee, the board of education must adopt the following:
(7) Procedures for investigation and disposition of complaints related to health and safety. Such procedures shall involve the health and safety committee and at a minimum shall conform to the following requirements:
(i) Provide for a written response to all written complaints. Such written response shall describe: (a) the investigations, inspections or tests made to verify the substance of the complaint, or a statement explaining why further investigations, inspections or tests are not necessary; (b) the results of any investigations, inspections or tests which address the complaint; (c) the actions, if any, taken to solve the problem; and (d) the action, if any, taken if the complaint involved a violation of law or of a contract provision.
(ii) A copy of the response shall be forwarded to the Health and Safety Committee.
Section 155.5 Uniform Safety Standards for School Construction and Maintenance Projects
All school construction and maintenance activities shall comply with the Uniform Safety Standards for School Construction and Maintenance Projects as set forth in section 155.5 of this Part.
The Orifici Report on my six articles says the District did not do this.
(2) Boards of education and boards of cooperative educational services shall establish procedures for involvement of the Health and Safety Committee to monitor safety during school construction projects. The Health and Safety Committees in school districts other than in cities with one million inhabitants or more shall be expanded during construction projects to include the project architect, construction manager, and the contractors. Such committees shall meet periodically to review issues and address complaints related to health and safety resulting from the construction project. (n) Post construction inspection. The school district or board of cooperative educational services shall provide the opportunity for a walk-through inspection by the health and safety committee members to confirm that the area is ready to be reopened for use. Schools are required to establish many committees, however the health and safety committee defined in Commissioner’s Regulations 155.4 and 155.5 is the only committee committed to ensuring a healthy and safe physical environment in which students can learn and adults can work.
Mike Orifici looked that much of this last year and found the District was not following much if any of what was required on Capital Construction projects.
So, that’s if for now. We will next start going building by building on the AVI report to prepare readers for the day the Orifici Building Condition Survey from 2014.