PLEASANTVILLE — Despite spending more than a million dollars on mold, HVAC and roof repairs over the past decade, lingering issues have resurfaced in the city’s schools.
At a meeting Tuesday, the Board of Education approved two resolutions to begin the mold remediation and initiate HVAC and roof repairs that caused the district to stay all-remote through the remainder of the school year.
“We want the public to understand that as a district we are fully aware of what the issues are, and we are being transparent,” said Superintendent Natakie Chestnut-Lee, who was hired in July. “All of our facility issues predate my tenure.”
The news of the mold, HVAC and roof issues was announced at a special school board meeting earlier this month. Chestnut-Lee said she had Coastal Environmental Compliance in Hammonton, which has been performing air quality tests annually for the district for about a decade, conduct an air quality test ahead of the district’s plan to return students to school in April. In a March 31 letter following the test, the company wrote that “some of the schools had a more significant issue than others.”
“Mold is present on a number of surfaces such as doors, tables, chairs and other items. This mold is due in part to two factors: the lack of occupancy during this school year and the condition of the HVAC systems throughout the schools,” the letter states.
Mold within school buildings usually occurs over the summer, when buildings are unoccupied and there is a lot of heat and humidity in the air. Over the years, many schools throughout the region, from Barnegat Township to Ocean City to Hamilton Township and Buena, have had mold issues that have caused buildings to close for remediation at the start of the school year.
For Pleasantville, the issues have been bubbling up for several years. In 2010, the Leeds Avenue School was closed just before the start of the school year for more than a week due to mold. The district also delayed the start of the 2018 school year for students at the North Main Street School to tackle mold.
In December 2018, the district authorized its engineering firm, Remington and Vernick, to submit documentation to the state for the HVAC renovations at North Main Street and Leeds Avenue and approved a resolution to go out to bid for a five-year lease purchase agreement in the amount of $5.75 million to fund the demolition, acquisition and installation of various HVAC improvements at the two schools.
In January 2019, then-Superintendent Clarence Alston told the school board the New Jersey Schools Development Authority would be visiting its North Main Street and Leeds Avenue schools for inspection of its HVAC systems, which are in need of replacement. Alston said temporary units were put in place until the repairs could be made, which was contingent on funding.
At a March 2, 2020, school board meeting — a year and one month after going out to bid on the project — the board awarded a $1.8 million contract to Kisby Shores Mechanical Contractors for the North Main Street HVAC replacement. The district said the delay in awarding the contract was due to having to wait for confirmation of funding from the SDA. The SDA awarded the district $2.4 million, but only for North Main Street repairs, not Leeds Avenue.
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In addition, district officials allocated $1.4 million in the 2020-21 budget for HVAC replacement at the Leeds and Washington avenue schools, but those projects were never completed.
In addition to HVAC repairs, the roofs at the high school, middle school and Washington Avenue and South Main Street elementary schools are all in need of repair or replacement, with leaks permeating the buildings and drop ceilings covered in brown water stains.
District records show that from 2011 to 2019, the Pleasantville School District paid ServPro $960,947 for services related to mold remediation. In 2012, the district paid Plymouth Environmental $68,900 for mold remediation. Between 2013 and 2020, Kowalski Roofing was paid $362,357 for roof repairs. And in 2013, the district paid Core Mechanical $636,003 for mold remediation work.
This week, Chestnut-Lee said even more HVAC work is needed at North Main Street despite the SDA-funded repairs because the chillers there were never replaced. The district plans to use the $4.9 million from the second round of federal school relief funds and the $1.2 million in unused funds from this year’s budget to pay for at least a portion of the work, which in total is estimated at $10 million.
According to a report by Remington and Vernick, between the Washington Avenue, Leeds Avenue and North Main Street schools, the HVAC work will cost $4.2 million. The roof replacements at the high school and the Washington Avenue School will cost about $500,000.
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Both Chestnut-Lee and board President Julio Sanchez, who was elected to the board this year, were critical of past administrations who had let the problems get so dire, and of the state monitor, Constance Bauer, for not pushing the school board to make the needed repairs over the past 10 years.
“I was upset, but not surprised,” Sanchez said. “Minimal work has been done to mitigate the situation. That’s disheartening.”
Chestnut-Lee said she has been in contact with Gov. Phil Murphy regarding Pleasantville’s mold and HVAC issues. Murphy’s press secretary, Alyana Alfaro, confirmed that.
“The governor continues to encourage all schools to open for in-person instruction as soon as it is safe to do so,” Alfaro said. “In August, the governor dedicated $100 million in Coronavirus Relief Fund funds to assist districts in reopening. His FY22 budget proposes an additional $75 million for emergent needs via the SDA.”
Meanwhile, remediation of the mold, which exists districtwide, is awaiting approval from Bauer, who is reviewing the expenditure.
The district wants to open the buildings by the summer for an in-person summer school program that will be open to any student with a C average or lower.
Chestnut-Lee said she hopes to complete a second phase of the needed HVAC and roof repairs in 2022.
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