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Superintendent Says All Schools Will Open On Time

By Becky Melvin

Getting all six Princeton Regional Schools in shape for opening day September 3 would require a Herculean effort on behalf of construction crews and school staff; but that's exactly what is happening, District Superintendent Claire Sheff Kohn said Monday.

"Work designated to be done this summer is getting done with emphasis on instructional areas, connecting areas, corridors, and stairwells being the main focus," Dr. Kohn said. "They're going to be ready unless there is a safety issue," she said.

Dr. Kohn referred to the blitz as a "major push" that has required hiring additional construction teams, long hours, and working through weekends.

Looking ahead, Dr. Kohn said the district also intends to use the next few days for clearing debris, cleaning floors, and overall cleaning of the buildings.

"Our custodians will be supplemented by an outside cleaning company in a major push at that time to ready the buildings for teachers on Tuesday and students on Wednesday," she said.

Not everything will be picture perfect, she added. For example, if elementary school administrative offices aren't done, there are contingency plans to relocate those offices to other areas within their respective buildings.

But this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, she said. "We're going to be under construction for quite awhile. It was never intended that it would be done in one summer. This is a 15- to 18-month project for the elementary schools and a two- to two-and-a-half year project for the middle school."

Nevertheless, delays have plagued construction schedules this summer, Dr. Kohn admitted, referring to excessive rain, asbestos abatement, and "other unexpected challenges" for the setbacks.

These delays sparked concern about whether the schools, particularly the four elementary schools ‹ Littlebrook, Riverside, Community Park, and Johnson Park ‹ would be usable by September. Contingency plans were developed in the event that one or more of the buildings wouldn't be ready. The plans included reassigning students to other locations.

Parents, students and staff were expected to get a firmer idea of where things stood at the end of last week. The district website posted a notice at that time that said all schools are scheduled to open for the first day of classes on Wednesday, September 3, for students and on Tuesday for teachers. (Students have early dismissal at 1 p.m. on Wednesday.)

Several construction workers on site at different elementary schools expressed doubts that the work could be completed on time. Electrical work at Community Park and Riverside Schools was a particular concern.

Dr. Kohn declined to say specifically what has to happen at each of the buildings before school can start, but she did say building code officials have to be satisfied that the facilities are safe. Fire alarms and things of that nature have to be working, she said. But finishing touches like carpeting probably won't be. "If the children don't have carpeting, that's not going to interfere with instruction," she said.

Dr. Kohn cautioned that parents should have in place their own back-up childcare plans in case of an emergency. She gave examples of emergencies, citing a water main break that forced her to shut the middle school for a day and weather-related events like hurricanes.

The pace of construction at each of the four elementary schools is moving forward simultaneously, with some contractors working at all four schools and some working at just one or two locations.

Construction at the high school hasn't yet begun, but is expected to this fall. To get the high school project within budget, it had to go out to bid again, and new bids are due September 17.

"After they are reviewed by architects, construction managers, and lawyers, and assuming that we have a responsive and responsible bidder, we'll vote on that September 23," Dr. Kohn said. "So this fall, we'll be breaking ground at the high school for a two-and-a-half year project."

She stressed that construction is moving forward and the intention is to fill the buildings. "Everybody should breathe a little easier because I'm doing enough worrying for everyone," Dr. Kohn said.

Nevertheless, like last year's school opening, which was mired in uncertainty due to a teachers' strike, school opening 2003 isn't yet ironclad.

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