CHRISTIANSBURG — Several members of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors pressed school officials about concerning building structural issues, the timing of which has recently been called into question.
Supervisors, such as their school board counterparts did a few weeks ago, got a glance at an approximately $8.8 million list of pressing facility needs across the county school system during a joint meeting of the two elected bodies Monday night.
The issues have sparked concerns about student and employee safety, but supervisors — in addition to voicing those same worries — used the opportunity to press the district about communication from its leadership.
Another point members on both bodies evoked to stress the importance of the matter was the district’s own history of structural failure — at one point in the discussion, board of supervisors Chairwoman Sherri Blevins specifically brought up the 2010 collapse of the old Blacksburg High School’s gym roof.
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One area of particular concern is Belview Elementary School, which MCPS staff have said is in immediate need of a new roof. The issue both supervisors and school board members pointed out with Belview is it recently underwent a renovation that, to the surprise of the elected officials, didn’t address the roof.
“That would be the first thing you’d look at,” Supervisors Todd King said.
Belview was one of three elementary schools in the Christiansburg strand selected for renovation and expansion projects a few years ago to address overcrowding challenges. Those projects – the others being Christiansburg Elementary and Christiansburg Primary schools – were altogether budgeted at over $30 million.
MCPS staff directly familiar with the subject told the school board in the discussion a few weeks ago that they learned about a portion of the Belview roof needing to be repaired back in 2016. The staff said they asked about the roof during the renovation but were told that it would be addressed at a later time.
Interim Superintendent Annie Whitaker said Monday she hasn’t been able to get a more specific answer on why the roof wasn’t addressed during the renovation. School officials said those decisions were made under the previous administration — the one under former Superintendent Mark Miear, who was dismissed in March.
The district was grappling with some funding limits on the renovations of the three elementary schools, said school board member Mark Cherbaka. The overcrowding problem was being prioritized, and the district essentially kicked the can down the road on roofing, he said.
School board member Penny Franklin, in response, said there are no reasons to ignore roofing concerns, especially if they had already been known about.
“If the roof is not right, it should have been taken care of,” she said. “I can’t say it was kicking the can down the road.”
The issue effectively created a situation where children and adults walking into 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 stirred notable questions and concerns from both supervisors and school board members is the water pressure-related challenges with Eastern Montgomery Elementary School’s fire sprinkler system.
One issue is how a low water pressure problem could affect the spray radius of the sprinkler system and ultimately its ability to fight fires, Philip Hash, the district assistant engineer for environmental and maintenance planning, previously said.
Hash clarified that the Eastern Montgomery Elementary sprinkler system would function in the event of a fire but wouldn’t be as effective as it’s designed to be. He also pointed to the nearby availability of fire hydrants, which he said provide the source and pressure needed to put out fires.
“I have not been able to sleep since I got knowledge of that,” Franklin said about the sprinkler system. “I’m just so … furious when we have to face this community and let them know what’s happening with these facilities.”
Blevins echoed Franklin’s sentiments.
“I’m furious. I’m very disappointed,” Blevins said. “Safety is first and foremost.”
Blevins said she hopes to see more measures put in place to ensure these kinds of problems aren’t just prevented, but effectively communicated to the school board. She spoke about a need to ensure employees aren’t afraid to communicate problems to district leadership.
Blevins said some of these issues aren’t new to her. She said she knew about the roof problems while she was running for election in 2019, when a portion of her campaign focused on addressing the needs of the three elementary schools in the Christiansburg strand. But then, she said she learned about the sprinkler system.
“I’m sorry, that’s unacceptable,” she said.
Blevins said there appears to have been a total disconnect and breakdown in communication from district leadership.
School board Chairwoman Sue Kass said it can take some time to spot and address leadership issues. She said the district has gone through leadership changes in the past year.
School board member Jamie Bond said it needs to be kept in mind that the district has long maintained lists of critical facilities needs and problems that need to be fixed. She said the district also often has to grapple with the challenges of funding limits.
“You take things and do the best you can with what you have,” said Bond.
Whitaker said they have implemented some short-term changes to ensure issues such as the ones recently covered are more effectively relayed and addressed.
One change, Whitaker said, has been a move to regularly put staff with knowledge of certain areas in the same room as district leadership to have conversations. She said that hadn’t always been the case for the staff who attended the recent meetings to go over the facility needs. She said they now meet once a week and talk for at least a couple hours to go over current needs and projects and the statuses of those things.
“We depend upon each other,” Whitaker said. “Nobody can make these kinds of decisions in a silo.”
Whitaker said her more long-term recommendation is to put into place a facilities plan containing specific standards to be upheld and schedules for when those areas need to be reviewed.
Supervisor Sara Bohn asked if staff had been privy to the original roof reports before the start of the Christiansburg strand projects. Whitaker said they had seen the reports and some even shared their thoughts, but “their considerations and opinions were not put into place.”
Bohn further asked about whistleblowing rights at the school, to which Whitaker said it is federal law to have a whistleblower in addition to other mandated policies.
“We can certainly do a better job communicating the things that are available to staff members, but we do have those policies in place,” Whitaker said.
Policies, however, are only as effective as the people enforcing them, Franklin said.
“We can have all the policies in the world, but if we have folks who don’t feel comfortable because they have been told ‘be quiet’ …. I’m not going to candy coat this [but] we have to have a system in place where employees have trust, that if there are things they bring forward, there will not be retribution,” Franklin said. “And this is what was not happening. These folks were not allowed to do their job.
“So when you talk about working in a silo, that’s exactly what was going on.”