Infrastructure debate surfaces

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LAPS: Board narrowly approves work at Piñon

What began as a routine contract approval hearing turned into anything but, at a recent Los Alamos Board of Education meeting. Problems zeroing in on the school district’s aging infrastructure quickly took center stage.


It all started when the Los Alamos Public School District’s purchasing manager, June Gladney, informed the board that the district has secured a contractor to repair the roof at Piñon Elementary’s “200” building, without the school board’s official approval. Usually, the school board would have a small debate about the specifics of the proposal, but this time, in order for LAPS to take advantage of state funding, the project had to be completed by the end of December.

That is why the school district decided to go ahead with the project with little input from the board, merely requiring board President Kevin Honnell’s signature to start the project off before the board had time to look into the specifics of the contract.

“To this end, the department has been very proactive to meet the Dec. 28 deadline,” Gladney told the board. “PSFA (Public School Facilities Authority) funding expires Dec. 31.  There is no getting around that, and that means this project has to be finished by Dec. 28, and that is what we told the contractor.”

The school district will contribute $230,650 to the project, while PSFA’s share will be $147,616 plus $10,794.42 in gross tax receipts. Gladney and the district’s Building Selection Committee chose Brian McPartlon Roofing LLC to do the job.

Gladney then informed the board that work had already started on the roof.

None of this sat well with certain members of the board, including White Rock’s representative school board member Melanie McKinley.

When Gladney asked the board to approve the already-in-progress roof replacement, McKinley immediately attacked the proposal, accusing the contractor of doing bad work and endangering the health of students and staff at the school when it did work at Piñon in the past. McKinley cited a recent repair job on the roof of the school’s “600” building as an example.

“The work they did on the roof at 600 Piñon ... again, highly disappointed ... because they didn’t do anything to protect our inside contents,” McKinley said. “They didn’t put down any plastic, they didn’t clean up when they were done and meanwhile, our kids are being exposed to all that dust and all that crap that was there. The teachers were exposed to it; they came down with respiratory infections.”

McKinley continued, saying the problem was aggravated when they turned on the heaters.

“All of the (dust) then blew out of the heaters. I know a teacher whose contact lenses were ruined,” she continued. “This happened at Barranca Mesa, as well. Haven’t we learned anything?”

McKinley then went on to attack the craftsmanship used in the roof repair at 600 Piñon, claiming the contractor used the wrong length of nail.

“I’m sorry, but nails that go all the way through aren’t providing any more ‘bite’ to hold things in place than if they stop within the roofing content,” McKinley said. “It’s not okay to put our kids at risk. Why are we using the same contractors to put down another roof?”

That was when School District Facilities Coordinator Jeff Sargent took to the podium, defending the contractor and the work they’ve done. Sargent claimed that plastic covering was put down prior to the repair to the 600 building, and that no one was in danger.

“I was there,” Sargent said. “Before they proceeded to take a section of roof off, they covered that room.”

When McKinley asked him if the rooms were still sheeted when the new roof was put on, Sargent replied, “No, because all the nailing had been done.”

Sargent went on to say the “dust” problem had to do with “Tectum,” a building material used on ceiling panels that were more than 50 years old.

That was when Honnell stepped in and agreed with McKinley.

“Whatever we are doing, right or wrong, we are not taking the adequate steps to protect our children’s health or making it a conducive learning environment,” Honnell said. “Tectum, whatever it is, the dust can’t be in the classroom.”

Sargent then replied that none of this was the roofer’s fault, that this was the fault of aging infrastructure.

“To be honest with you, it’s because of the age of the material that was used when the buildings were built,” Sargent said.

Piñon Elementary School was built sometime in the early 1960s.

“The Tectum is exposed right below the roofing material,” Sargent said. “There are no suspended drop ceilings (to prevent exposure)  like you have in most classrooms nowadays.”

Honnell then recalled an incident that occurred at a different elementary school, Barranca Mesa, where a teacher spent all night long taping plastic across a classroom ceiling to prevent the aging building material from falling down on her students.

“If our teachers can think of this, then certainly our construction professionals and contractors can as well,” Honnell said.

McKinley again brought the debate back to the length of the nails.

“I don’t understand,” McKinley said. “The 300 building, the 400 building doesn’t have stuff raining down all the time ... It’s only the building that has the new roof that has stuff raining down all the time.”

McKinley then told Sargent that she thought the problem wasn’t about all the hammering and installing that was going on, it was because of the nails that were allegedly poking through the Tectum tiles.

Sargent said the contractor was forced to use a particular type of fastener by the district’s insurance company, and that may have been the problem.

“But again, you aren’t providing any more bite if the nail comes through the Tectum or not,”  McKinley said. “... it’s causing a real problem for the students. It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. I hate having my kid in there with all that dust.”

Sargent replied that they have been cleaning the dust out of the furnaces, fans and any other place it was found.

Sargent also said that they are working with a different type of ceiling structure in the 200 building, a structure that will not be as prone to dust problems as 600 was.

“We are doing the library, the art room, the music room, the lounge, the administration offices and the supply room,” Sargent said.

When McKinley asked for a guarantee that the process won’t be a repeat of what allegedly what went on at 600, Sargent refused to give it.

“I’m not going to guarantee you anything,” Sargent said. “I’m telling you that there is a lot less possibility of that happening because we have a different type of roof system in place than we did in the 600 building.” He went on to say that unlike the 600 building, the 200 building is protected by a solid metal deck in the ceiling that prevents the Tectum from leaking out.

McKinley then asked Sargent if they can rid the 600 building of the Tectum leak for good and Sargent said, “We can do whatever we need to do.” He also said that he checked out the work at the 600 building and even talked to the teacher whose contacts were damaged, when they turned on the furnace fans.

“She did not have anything negative to say and I also looked at those penetrations you remarked about and they are not all the way through the material. They just show up as dents,” Sargent said. He also remarked that places that had drop ceilings had no Tectum leaks.

“I think there is a lesson to be learned here,” Honnell said. “Given the board’s charter to be involved in the repair and maintenance of the schools... having this conversation up front rather than after the fact is a worthwhile investment of our time.”

Board Vice President Dawn Venhaus echoed Honnell’s sentiments.

“Whenever we have something like this, where we have to replace a roof in a timely manner ... unless we’re willing to have an executive session beforehand so that they can be done in a timely manner. We have to let the administration have some leeway in getting these things resolved,” Venhaus said.

With that, the board reluctantly approved the contract 3-2, with McKinley and Honnell voting not to approve the contract work; contract work that had already begun.