CHRISTIANSBURG — Several members of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors have lobbied school officials over structural construction issues, the timing of which was recently called into question.
Supervisors, like their school board counterparts did a few weeks ago, took a look at a list of about $8.8 million in urgent facility needs across the county’s school system. at a joint meeting of the two elected bodies on Monday evening.
The issues have raised concerns about the safety of students and employees, but supervisors — in addition to voicing those same concerns — have taken the opportunity to pressure the district about its leadership’s communication.
Another point that members of both bodies brought up to underscore the importance of the issue was the district’s own history of structural failure – at one point in the discussion, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sherri Blevins specifically referred to the 2010 collapse of the roof of the gymnasium at the old Blacksburg High School. .
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One area of particular concern is Belview Elementary School, which MCPS staff say is in immediate need of a new roof. The problem supervisors and school board members have pointed out with Belview is that it recently underwent a renovation that, to the surprise of elected officials, did not address the roof.
“That would be the first thing you would look at,” supervisor Todd King said.
Belview was one of three elementary schools in the Christiansburg component selected for renovation and expansion projects a few years ago to address overcrowding issues. These projects – the others being Christiansburg Elementary and Elementary Schools – were budgeted at more than $30 million.
MCPS staff directly familiar with the matter told the school board during the discussion a few weeks ago that they learned that part of the Belview roof was due for repair in 2016. Staff said they laid down questions about the roof during the renovation but was told it would be dealt with later.
Acting Superintendent Annie Whitaker said Monday she was unable to get a more specific answer as to why the roof was not repaired during the renovation. School officials said those decisions were made under the previous administration – that of former superintendent Mark Miear, who was removed from office in March.
The district was struggling with some funding limitations for renovations to the three elementary schools, said school board member Mark Cherbaka. The overcrowding issue was a priority, and the district basically kicked the street on the roof, he said.
School board member Penny Franklin responded that there was no reason to ignore roofing issues, especially if they were already known.
“If the roof is not straight, it should have been taken care of,” she said. “I can’t say it was a kick in the box on the road.”
The issue effectively created a situation where children and adults entering that building were put at risk, Franklin said.
“You take care of the roof,” she said. “With the history we have in this county, you take care of the roof.”
Another area that has raised notable questions and concerns from supervisors and school board members is water pressure issues with the fire sprinkler system at Eastern Montgomery Elementary School.
One of the issues is how a low water pressure issue could affect the sprinkler system’s spray radius and ultimately its ability to fight fires, Philip Hash, assistant district engineer for the environmental and maintenance planning.
Hash said Eastern Montgomery Elementary’s sprinkler system would work in the event of a fire, but would not be as effective as it is designed to be. He also pointed to the nearby availability of fire hydrants, which he said provide the source and pressure needed to extinguish fires.
“I haven’t been able to sleep since I found out about it,” Franklin said of the sprinkler system. “I’m so… furious when we have to face this community and let them know what’s going on with these facilities.”
Blevins echoed Franklin’s sentiments.
“I’m furious. I’m very disappointed,” Blevins said. “Safety comes first.”
Blevins said she hopes to see more measures put in place to ensure these types of issues are not just avoided, but effectively communicated to the school board. She spoke of the need to ensure that employees are not afraid to communicate issues to district leaders.
Blevins said some of these issues aren’t new to her. She said she was aware of the roof issues as she ran for office in 2019, when part of her campaign focused on the needs of the three elementary schools in the Christiansburg strand. But then she said she heard about the sprinkler system.
“I’m sorry, this is unacceptable,” she said.
Blevins said there appears to have been a total disconnect and breakdown in communication with district leaders.
School board president Sue Kass said it can take some time to spot and resolve leadership issues. She said the district has seen leadership changes over the past year.
School board member Jamie Bond said it’s important to remember that the district has long kept lists of critical facility needs and issues that need to be addressed. She said the district also often faces the challenges of funding limits.
“You take things and do the best you can with what you have,” Bond said.
Whitaker said he implemented short-term changes to ensure that issues such as those recently covered are relayed and dealt with more effectively.
One change, Whitaker said, has been to regularly put staff knowledgeable in certain areas in the same room as district leaders to have conversations. She said that hasn’t always been the case for staff who have attended recent meetings to review the needs of the facility. She said they now meet once a week and talk for at least a few hours to go over current needs and plans and the status of those things.
“We depend on each other,” Whitaker said. “Nobody can make those kinds of decisions in a silo.”
Whitaker said his longer-term recommendation is to have a facility plan in place with specific standards to be met and timelines for when those areas need to be overhauled.
Supervisor Sara Bohn asked if staff were aware of the original rooftop reports before the Christiansburg component projects began. Whitaker said he saw the reports and some even shared their thoughts, but “their considerations and opinions weren’t put together.”
Bohn further asked about whistleblower rights at the school, to which Whitaker said it was federal law to have a whistleblower in addition to other mandatory policies.
“We can definitely do a better job of communicating the things that are available to staff members, but we have those policies in place,” Whitaker said.
Policies, however, are only as effective as the people implementing them, Franklin said.
“We can have all the politics in the world, but if we have people who don’t feel comfortable because they’ve been told to ‘shut up’…. I’m not gonna coat this in candy [but] we need to have a system in place where employees have confidence, that if there are things they come forward with, there will be no retaliation,” Franklin said. “And that’s what wasn’t happening. These people were not allowed to do their job.
“So when you talk about working in silos, that’s exactly what was going on.”