Playing it safe

LEWISTOWN – The closure of Indian Valley Elementary and Intermediate School was relatively short-lived as school officials announced a provisional occupancy permit had been granted by Friday afternoon and classes were set to resume Monday.

Dozens of parents had packed the Mifflin County School Board meeting the previous night to express concerns about what they consider to be unsafe conditions while renovation work continues at the IVEIS building. Early Friday morning, uncertainty about the status of a proper occupancy permit prompted officials to close the school until another inspection was completed.

By Friday afternoon a building code inspector had completed a walk-through of the building and issued a provisional, or temporary, occupancy permit, said James Estep, superintendent for the Mifflin County School District.

Estep said the inspector noted a few issues for the school district to address, but otherwise found the building safe to occupy.

“He (the inspector) advised us to replace latch hooks on some of the temporary wooden doors with hasps and padlocks. He also asked us to install battery powered emergency lights in the library hallway and another hallway in the basement,” Estep said. “All of those items were taken care of today or will be taken care of before Monday. The contractors will be working through the weekend.”

Estep also said a copy of the provisional occupancy permit would be posted on the contractor’s trailer outside of the building. Concerned parents could also request to see a copy of the permit at the school principal’s office, he said.

Regarding the uncertainty about an occupancy permit in the first place, The Sentinel asked Estep if this was a situation in which the school district was misinformed by an outside party or if it was a case of misunderstanding on the part of the school district.

“We still don’t truly know which one it is. Our attorney is reviewing it,” Estep said. “This temporary permit is essentially a verification of the maintenance staff and contractor’s efforts to keep the building safe as the renovation work continues.”

Even with Friday’s announcement about the permit and scheduled re-opening, a number of parents continued to express doubts about the school’s safety, and shared their thoughts via social media.

“Classes may resume but my son will not be attending until we have more answers … and I feel 100 percent safe,” said Kelly Sunderland in a post on Facebook.

One woman posted “I am curious about a few things … air clearance of any toxins, cleanliness of the cafeteria. Is there any air filtration in the building, are the construction crews working while the kids are in the building, other than that I just want the building up to code with a VALID occupancy permit.”

Other parents continued expressing mistrust of school officials and frustration with the situation throughout the day. A recurring issue of concern mentioned by many parents was whether the school district allowed children into the building on Thursday without having a proper permit.

Clem Malot is a building code official employed by Commonwealth Code Inspection Services in Manheim, which is the firm contracted by Brown Township to handle the inspections for the school. Malot said he personally conducted the walk-through and inspection of the building on Friday, and found the school to be in compliance with state construction and safety codes.

“There is a team of inspectors and plan reviewers who have been following this project from the beginning,” Malot said. “(Thursday) was a routine inspection, and there were some issues that needed to be addressed. We did a thorough walk-through (on Friday) and we feel the progress is satisfactory and the building is safe to occupy.”

Malot said his experience with school projects like the one at Indian Valley is that lay people are often confused about the difference between what is unfinished and what is unsafe.

“A parent walks into the building and sees unfinished areas – bare cement floors, unfinished drywall, missing ceiling tiles – and sees it as unsafe, but there are no hazards to the occupants. It’s part of the process, and it may not be aesthetically pleasing, but it’s safe,” he said.

Some other aspects of the project could also be confusing to parents because of their appearance – such as areas where temporary lighting has been installed.

“During our inspection, we determined that it is properly installed and allows adequate lighting for emergencies and egress. The safety of the occupants is our No. 1 concern, that’s why we’re so thorough in conducting these inspections,” Malot said. “As with any work in progress, it will look unfinished until it is finished – there’s no way to hide that.”

Malot also offered an explanation regarding concerns about the school’s occupancy permit. He said area residents should not assume that the school’s full occupancy permit from 2005 is invalid simply because of its age. He also noted the school was issued a building permit in the spring of 2013 that allowed the early stages of the renovation project to begin while the building was still occupied.

He also said the provisional occupancy permit issued Friday should not be interpreted as the only source of permission for the school to be occupied; rather, it acts as the authorization for portions of the building to continue being occupied as the renovation project continues.

“To renovate a building while it is occupied, the construction plan has to be done in phases. The plan for this school has three phases, and as different areas of the building are made ready to occupy they will be opened,” Malot said. “Phase One of this project is substantially complete. The permit we issued (Friday) covers that, and they are allowed to occupy the parts of the building included in Phase One.”

Malot emphasized that inspections of the building and its renovation will be performed continuously throughout the construction process, not just at the completion of each phase. When the third and final phase is completed, he and his staff will issue a final certificate of occupancy for the entire building.

“I have grandchildren of my own who are in school, and I take my job very seriously,” Malot said. “If I didn’t take it seriously, I wouldn’t be in this business.”