REEDSVILLE – While students throughout Mifflin County boarded buses en route the first day of school, two of Kim Rowe’s children changed into their first-day outfits with another day at home ahead of them.
“I’m afraid for the safety of my children” Rowe, of Yeagertown, said. “I can’t, with a clear conscience, send my children (to school).”
Her sentiments were shared by a number of parents throughout the district who chose to keep their kids home on the first day of school after learning of unfinished and – in their opinion – unsafe construction at Indian Valley Elementary and Intermediate School in Reedsville. Parents who attended a walk-through event Wednesday night turned to Facebook to post pictures of wires hanging from ceilings, closed stairways and dust covering cafeteria counters at the school.
“We actually saw a cart sitting outside first grade classrooms that had razor blades on it,” said Kelly Sunderland, whose son attends the school.
Sunderland said floor and ceiling tiles still needed to be installed, and she was concerned about the chemicals that will be used and the dust those procedures will create.
“When we walked outside, I noticed white residue on the side and back of my husband’s shirt, and he did not remember brushing up against anything,” Sunderland said. “My son did not go to school today and will not go until I feel it is perfectly safe.”
Despite ongoing renovation at the school, the doors opened to students for the first time as planned on Thursday morning.
IVEIS Principal Michael LaMarca said contractors worked through the night to put the finishing touches on areas that would be immediately utilized by students and properly barricade areas that were not ready for occupancy. At this point in time, he said, construction is progressing on schedule except for one restroom in the long hallway that was taking longer than expected. That area is closed to students and there are other restrooms available for use, he said.
But parents aren’t convinced.
Tammy Wagner, of Reedsville, said she attended the Wednesday night open house and asked school officials and project supervisors whether the school held a valid occupancy permit. Wagner said her request was passed from person to person, but no one produced the paperwork.
On Thursday, Wagner contacted Brown Township officials for more information. She took her findings again to Facebook, under a group created by and called IVES Concerned Parents. There, she wrote that the school allegedly did not have an occupancy permit and officials knew it was not in compliance with local zoning codes.
Mifflin County School District Superintendent James Estep said that wasn’t the case. He said the school has an existing occupancy permit that was issued in 2005.
“Our understanding was that that remains in force until the code inspector finished his various checks,” he said. “We were never informed that our existing occupancy permit was invalid. To our knowledge, we are not in violation.”
Estep said it was his understanding that once the inspector completed his inspections and contractors complied, a new and temporary permit would be issued and cover construction through the end of the renovation.
Renovations aren’t expected to be completely finished until the spring, LaMarca said. In the meantime, Estep emphasized that the school district is taking necessary steps to ensure safety for students and faculty. He said he attended a complete walk-through of the building on Thursday along with the code inspector, representatives from Brown Township and Brown Township Zoning Officer Teresa King.
Estep said the group spent all morning and part of the early afternoon conducting the walk-through. During that time, the inspector pointed out specific areas of concern that must be addressed for the school to stay in compliance and open for today, the second day of school.
“Water fountains weren’t yet finished being installed,” Estep said at the time of the walk-through.
However, the project was completed within the hour, he said. There also were restrooms in which one or more sinks were not in full operation and classroom accessories that were not stored properly. Both the restrooms and storage issues were resolved before the end of the day Thursday, he said.
The fire supression system in the kitchen, which was tested privately before school began, was tested again Thursday with the inspector present, Estep said. He also said uncovered electrical outlets were secured before the end of the day, too. Estep said an area where blacktop had been cut and temporarily filled with stone during construction was on the agenda for improvements Thursday.
“The only other thing (the inspector) had concerns about were some areas in the hallways,” Estep said, where temporary or emergency lighting needed to be adjusted to a specific height.
That, he said, would be finished by morning.
“I believe this is safe to occupy,” he assured. “I’m really proud of how teachers came in and got the rooms ready without much notice.”
Estep said he was proud of the custodial and maintenance staff who were working well into the evenings to keep students safe too.
Overall, both parents and administration said safety was their primary concern.
“In an ideal world, the school would be complete and perfect, but I am realistic and do not expect that,” Sunderland said. “I can deal with ‘ugly’ on a temporary basis, I just cannot accept unsafe conditions.”
Sunderland said she and other parents planned to attend the school board meeting Thursday evening and were rallying others to join them.
“I would like the school to be fully inspected and have an occupancy certificate before students are permitted to return,” she said.
Sunderland said she would like MCSD to consider daily inspections and air quality checks while the school is still under construction.
“It is an active work zone, and conditions can change constantly,” she said.
Whether regularly scheduled or in response to public outcry, changes are being made quickly and contractors were again expected to be working through the night on Thursday.
“Obviously, safety for the students is paramount,” said state Rep. Kerry a, R-Bellefonte, who visited the school Thursday.
He said an air exchange system is running all the time and Brown Township inspectors have been monitoring progress closely.
Benninghoff said school renovations are a catch-22 because communities want to see better schools, but administration only has about three months of the year to work without students present. He said everyone involved is trying to be safe for the children and the school should see significant progress in the coming weeks.