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District's Health and Safety Plan Delayed

Candace Braun

A health and safety draft plan related to the Princeton Regional Schools' construction was not available to the public at the School Board's meeting on Tuesday, November 25.

School Board President Charlotte Bialek said that while the first draft of the plan had been received by the Board's industrial hygienist, the final draft will not be ready for public view until January 5. The plan will go through the first of two reviews during the week of December 15, however, some aspects of the anticipated plan will be implemented in the near future.

Some parents at the meeting were angered that they were unable to see a draft of the plan, and that the plan will not go into effect any sooner.

Mark Freda, a Borough resident who has two children in Littlebrook Elementary, was upset by the lack of information the parents will receive prior to the plan's adoption. "We've been talking about the Health and Safety Plan for months, and [parents] still haven't been able to get a look at it," he said.

Mr. Freda brought a list more than three pages long of complaints listed by teachers at the different schools related to construction. He handed out copies to both the Board and the public. Some of the problems that were listed include a lack of ventilation in rooms and reactions to roofing and construction such as red itchy eyes, sore lungs, and general nausea from toxic fumes.

"I think it's important that the Board looks at this and sees that a lot of things have happened [during construction]," said Mr. Freda.

Several parents spoke during the public forum, voicing concern for what the Health and Safety Plan will cover. Issues brought to the table included letting students and parents know 24 hours in advance when hazardous chemicals will be present in the air, and the need for a better inspection and cleaning system at all the schools during construction.

Ms. Bialek asked for patience from the community so that workers will be able to get the job done swiftly and correctly.

"Construction in any place is an enormous stressor," she said. "I think we're all trying hard to be cooperative and helpful."

The School Board president informed the public that the district has had four separate meetings with each of the elementary schools. Parents and school staff were invited to discuss construction-related problems with administrators, as well as representatives from the Hillier Group and Epic Construction, the architects and construction managers in charge of the $81.3 million construction project on all six schools.

Ms. Bialek said that a committee will meet to review the Health and Safety Plan during mid-December. The plan will be placed on the district's website on January 5.

The committee to review the plan is comprised of Board members, administrators, construction professionals, Princeton health officials, and members of the Public Employees Occupational Safety Health Committee. A second review will be conducted by the Health and Safety Committee, Gary Weisman, director of facilities, parents, and administrators.

The Board did announce, however, that it is not waiting for the plan to be fully reviewed before implementing some of its strategies, such as keeping physical hazards out of the way of staff and children, and exploring the possibility of finding a substitute for certain hazardous work materials.

Air quality and other health-related problems due to construction were also addressed. Air quality will be monitored by placing barriers and ductwork around construction areas, sealing off construction areas and allowing clean air to flow through from other areas of the building. The Board also stated that there have been no measurable increases in health problems as reported by school nurses.

The Board asked that parents notify the school nurse if a child is susceptible to asthma or other related health problems, as it is difficult to differentiate symptoms from those of common illnesses.

Dave Tuck, a parent of a Littlebrook Elementary student, thanked the Board for acknowledging and accepting the issues that the parents have brought to the table concerning construction. He asked, however, that the school nurse review the health forms of every child in the school to make sure they are not exposed to anything dangerous.

Superintendent Claire Sheff Kohn told Mr. Tuck that the school nurses are currently reviewing the information of children most susceptible to construction hazards.

Construction Progress

Construction at the elementary schools should be completed by March, said Michael Mostoller, facilities chairman. While this is two months behind schedule, Mr. Mostoller said the contractors don't foresee any more problems that would delay the completion date any longer.

"We're hoping to get [construction] back in high gear at the beginning of the year," he said. High school renovations on the existing building will not begin until May, however, construction on additions such as the science labs, auditorium, art room, and gym will begin as soon as possible, Mr. Mostoller said.

In other news, Alan Hegedus, finance chairman, told the Board that the district has used up all of its contingency for Littlebrook and Riverside. Approximately 25 percent of the contingency has been used at Community Park and Johnson Park, as well.

A separate $300,000 has been used from the district's general fund to help pay for unforeseen expenses, such as custodial overtime, air testing, industrial hygiene, and mold testing.

A total $1 million has not been paid or approved yet for John Witherspoon construction and renovations, however it must be taken into account as monies spent by the district.

"The strain is beginning to show," said Mr. Hegedus. "Most surprises occur early on in a project," he said, "nonetheless, there is a yellow flag."

The finance committee will begin to configure the budget for the next school year in the upcoming weeks, with their next meeting on Monday, December 15.

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