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Repeatedly Warned Of Structural Failure, New Rochelle Superintendent Rejected Pleas to Replace Webster Roof a Year Before Ceiling Collapse

Written By: Robert Cox

NEW ROCHELLE, NY — Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne, in the first few weeks of his administration in 2014, was warned repeatedly that the roof and ceiling system of the Webster Elementary School was showing signs of structural failure, required immediate attention and needed to be completely replaced, records show. Osborne failed to act, putting dozens of lives at risk, and the ceiling collapsed a year later, in August 2015.

Talk of the Sound has reported for more than a year that Osborne knew the ceiling was in imminent danger of collapse and refused to take action to fix it, an assertion which Osborne has repeatedly denied.

Shortly after his arrival in July, 2014, Osborne received two briefings from Michael Orifici of Capital Project Consulting, the District’s construction consultant. Orifici presented the results of his review of Annual Visual Inspection reports filed with the New York State Education Department and his personal inspection of every school building in the District (the so-called “Orifici Report” for regular readers of Talk of the Sound), a report presented to the Board months earlier. Concluding his presentation, Orifici warned Osborne about the dangers associated with the possible collapse of the roofs at both Webster and Columbus Schools and strongly advised him to schedule a Bond Referendum Vote as early as possible to secure a level of financial resources to, at a minimum, replace the two roofs.

The briefings were held in the Superintendent’s Office.  Present were Michael Orifici, Interim Superintendent Jeffrey Korostoff, Treasurer Carol Amorello, Business Manager Lynda Greenbaum and Osborne. Noticeably absent was then-former-Assistant Superintendent for Business & Administration John Quinn who been notified a few days earlier that his contract would not be renewed after the Board learned that Quinn had failed to repair the fire alarm system at New Rochelle High School and withheld information about this failure from the Board for years.

At the meeting, Osborne was presented a copy of the so-called “Orifici Report” which summarized the findings of his visual inspectoions of each of the schools conducted in the Spring of 2014.  This report also detailed the nature and cost of the Summer building projects, already approved by the Board, to be completed before the opening of school in September, 2014.

Osborne rejected Orifici’s recommendations for immediate action to repair the roofs and Columbus and Webster. Orifici pleaded with Osborne to reconsider. Much to the surprise and dismay of everyone around the table, Osborne replied that he would not do so because “As a first-year Superintendent, I cannot run the risk that a Bond will go down to defeat.”

“Each of us who heard Dr. Osborne’s comment was truly astonished that he would place his career interests above his concerns for the safety and welfare of the students and adults entrusted to our care,” said then-Interim Superintendent Jeffrey Korostoff in a recent phone interview.

Osborne repeated this statement verbatim at the second briefing session.

After the ceiling collapse at Webster, Talk of the Sound filed a series of Freedom of Information requests seeking to obtain the “Orifici Report” which Osborne failed to produce, knowingly denying the report’s existence and stonewalling Talk of the Sound’s investigation. Talk of the Sound later obtained a copy of the “Orifici Report” from a source.

A separate analysis of the dangerous conditions at Webster School was sent in a letter dated August 20, 2014. The letter was sent by Michael Smith, the District’s architect-of-record, to Osborne.  Smith warned Osborne that the roof and ceiling at Webster School was compromised, representing a “serious condition in need of immediate attention.”

Architect Letter (Smith & Pucillo)

“We suspect that the existing roof deck and roofing assembly may be waterlogged,” wrote Smith at the time. “This water represents a load that the existing roof was not designed to resist.”

“This water will cause rapid deterioration of the existing roof system,” Smith added.

Smith’s letter to Osborne warned that the water damage was concentrated in the old wing on the second floor.

“These leaks have caused deterioration of the interior finishes and in some places failure of the existing ceiling and wall assemblies. These leaks appear to have been on-going for a significant amount of time.”

A year later, days before the start of the new school year, the ceiling in Room 204, located in the old wing on the second floor, collapsed, causing tons of building debris to pancake down onto the classroom, crushing desks, chairs and tables. Had school been in session, every student in the classroom would have been killed, said a local building official.

After the collapse, Osborne issued a series of misleading statements. He attributed the collapse to the “age of the ceiling” and years of water leaking through the roof which “aggravated a small construction error” going back to 1930.

“They didn’t use the right size fasteners,” said Osborne. “The fasteners, hidden beneath the plaster were not in any consistent pattern.”

Several building professionals, familiar with the Webster School, commented on Osborne’s statements, calling them “absurd” and “nonsense”.

One expert said the original ceiling, installed around 1930, utilized “adequate size and quantities of fasteners for its purpose”. That the ceiling lasted over 85 years with these fasteners supports this contention, he pointed out.

“To ignore the basic needs of a building then turn around and blame decades old building practices is absurd,” said one engineer familiar with the building. “To blame nails that were able to hold for 80 years as key to the systemic failure of the ceiling system makes no sense.”

“It’s simple, an 80-year old building will require maintenance without which it will fail,” she added.

One source, familiar with the work done on the school over the years, recalled that the asphalt roof was added to the school about 50 years ago. When this failed in the 1980s it was coated with a spray-urethane-foam roof assembly.  This foam roof assembly was subsequently repaired around 1999 (at the end of its useful life) in order to buy about 5-years additional life.  In some locations, a rubber roof membrane was installed in the 1990s 

The foam roof was probably leaking for about a decade, he said, however, due to the existence of both roof assemblies, the old built-up and the old foam, and the concrete deck, leaks would not reveal themselves readily because water would be trapped in all the layers. Leaks appeared around penetrations in the concrete deck such as pipe vents and electrical conduits, as well as around the perimeter of the building and the edge of the slab. 

During the original construction, fasteners and anchors were installed to support the finished ceiling assembly. This ceiling was plaster on lath. Over time additional weight was added to the ceiling.

The plaster ceiling was covered with glued on acoustical tiles, possibly in the 1950s.

In the 1990s a renovation was performed that included the installation of a hung acoustical tile ceiling below the existing plaster ceiling. The assembly was attached to the 1930s ceiling assembly rather than directly to the structural members.  This work also included the installation of duct work and light fixtures.

The additional weight of the 1990s ceiling and the deterioration caused by the water penetration over the past decade caused the 1930 ceiling system to fail.

The ceiling did not fail because of the fasteners and anchors, the fasteners and anchors were pulled out because the ceiling failed.

“The 1930 work may not have been done correctly but was done so that it was suitable enough to support itself,” he said.  “This problem could have been eliminated if the 1990s work included removing the 1930s plaster ceiling prior to installing the new ceiling and attach the 1990s work directly to the structure rather than the 1930s ceiling.”

The Annual Visual Inspection Reports obtained by Talk of the Sound show that for years, building inspectors noted water penetration, rot and rust. It was these Annual Visual Inspection Reports that were reviewed by Orifici, analysis contained in the Orifici Report presented to Osborne in July 2014 and a component of the concerns expressed in the Smith letter in August 2014.

In short, the records show that Osborne was repeatedly warned that the Webster roof and ceiling were not only in imminent danger of failure, but that structural failing was ongoing, and despite this, he failed to act. The architect specifically identified the second floor of the south wing of the old school as the problem area. The AVI report cited by Orifici specifically mentioned Room 204.

Ceiling Collapse Shutters Daniel Webster Elementary School in New Rochelle

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