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Town Shows Concern Over Construction

Candace Braun

Almost 100 teachers, parents, and residents turned out for the Princeton Regional School Board meeting on Tuesday, September 23, to discuss their concerns with construction at the elementary and middle schools.

"Stop all construction now," said Beth Freda. Ms. Freda, a parent, read a list of concerns with construction at Community Park, including sewage problems. She told the school board that there were problems much more serious than an overflowing toilet that needed to be looked into.

Dee Mann, a Princeton Regional Education Association representative for Johnson Park, complained of the many hazards students were exposed to when the school's roof was worked on during school hours. "Black chunks were raining down on the students from the roof," she said.

The PREA representative also discussed how an adhesive chemical was found present in the roofing materials that she felt was hazardous to the students' health. Ms. Mann reported that students had several symptoms relating to the chemical, including dry throat, coughing, congestion and nausea.

Currently, all roof construction has temporarily ceased, and will not start again until a solution is found, said Facilities Chairman Michael Mostoller. He said the board is looking into the problem, and is hoping to find an alternative roofing material to use.

Additional problems Ms. Mann listed were the traffic children must cross to get to school during construction, and the hazards of excess dust in the parking lots. She said faculty members have had to have their engines steam-cleaned due to the excess dirt and dust.

Riverside teacher Amanda Nichols also listed dust as a concern during construction. She said the dust was caked into students' desks when they came to school on the first day, and her class had to help clean the room before they could begin their lessons for the day.

Asbestos tiles were found in a fifth grade classroom in Littlebrook, according to teacher Sarah Schwimmer. She said that when air ventilators were replaced in the classrooms the asbestos was found underneath the carpet. Ms. Schwimmer said she received a prompt visit from Dr. Kohn after reporting the problem; however it took three weeks before it was resolved. She also mentioned concern that a health and safety plan had not been implemented by the board before construction began.

Adrienne Cohen, special education teacher at Littlebrook, asked, with anger in her voice, why faculty was not receiving important information regarding changes in construction. "We are formally requesting that you consult us," she said.

Alternating with the complaints of parents and teachers were those who stood up for the school board. One parent reminded those in attendance that it was important for parents to realize that construction involves inconvenience, but will have a positive outcome in the end.

Former School Board President Jack Marrero also spoke. He told residents and faculty to be patient with construction, and remember what the school board went through to get the necessary work done on all six schools in the district.

"Construction creates a lot of problems," said Mr. Marrero. "Now we have a board who is moving ahead. Please support them all the way." He said he supports everything the board is doing for the children, and he will continue to back them up, even if it means raising taxes to get the job done.

Facilities Director Gary Weisman said that despite the many problems that have been raised at the different schools by parents and faculty, the district is keeping an eye out and fixing problems as they arise. He said full clarification wipe samples were taken in various classrooms in each building to test for chemical hazards, and only typical building components were found in the tested dust after it was sent to a lab.

At Riverside and Littlebrook, the discoloration of water was looked into shortly after attention was called to it, said Mr. Weisman. Elizabeth¬town Water Company came out and tested the water, finding elevated levels of iron, but not enough to raise health concerns. The company suggested the schools have their taps flushed, which he said was done promptly. In the meantime faculty and students were given bottled water to drink.

Various school faculty had also complained of mold, which Mr. Weisman said is under control now. He said that some clean up is needed in the Johnson Park music room, which will be taken care of shortly.

"We are continually working as diligently and hard as possible to fix these problems," said Mr. Weisman. The facilities director said he is now working on a health and safety plan that will soon be implemented during construction at the schools. He also invited all school staff to come to him with any future problems at the schools under construction.

In a letter sent out to Princeton parents last week, Superintendent Claire Sheff Kohn said that all parental concerns over construction should be directed to school principals. She also asked that parents reassure their children that the construction is temporary and a unique learning opportunity.

"Construction is intrinsically interesting to children, but can be a distraction," said Dr. Kohn. "[Parents] can help them by engaging them in understanding the process."

Costs Going Up

But no matter how interesting and exciting construction may be, the cost for the district continues to rise.

Alan Hegedus, board finance chairman, announced at last week's meeting that half the funds from the contingency for the elementary and middle school construction were used up as of September 23. Contingency funds amount to approximately five percent of the overall cost of construction for the schools. This money is put aside for unforeseen costs.

Those costs include problems with asbestos that was found at some of the elementary schools, water and air testing at the schools, issues with soil, and overtime for janitors who spent many hours over the summer cleaning up after construction, said Ms. Bialek late last week. She said many janitors worked well beyond their allotted hours to get the job done. "Some hardly took a day off," she said.

Ms. Bialek also said that the full contingency is still left for the high school, and the board does not anticipate going over the allotted funds. "The contractors seem to think we still have plenty [of money] left from the contingency."

Despite the unforeseen problems, construction is well underway at the four elementary schools and middle school, said Michael Mostoller. He said both Littlebrook and Riverside are well on their way to completion in painting, and the kitchen at John Witherspoon Middle School is 98 percent complete. "In the very near future, our elementary schools will be complete," said Mr. Mostoller.

The facilities chairman also said that the turf on the high school field was laid this past week, and should be ready for the October 4 home football game against Hamilton.

In her letter to parents, Dr. Kohn said that she anticipates "all the elementary schools will be substantially completed some time during the latter part of this coming winter, barring further weather-related delays." She said the new academic wing at the middle school should be complete for the 2004-05 school year, and all middle school renovations should be complete before June of 2005.

In addition, Princeton residents will soon seen some money back in their pockets. An additional $5 million has been awarded the district from the state, which will go directly to tax relief in the district, said Ms. Bialek.

In related news, bids will be opened for the high school construction project Wednesday, October 1, at 1 p.m. A special board meeting to award a bid will take place Thursday, October 2 at 7 p.m. at the Valley Road building.

According to Ms. Bialek, the district currently has five to 10 bidders seriously interested in the project. "We have a lot of really strong, reputable firms showing an interest this time," she said. "We are very excited."

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