HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - Multiple construction projects at several Hillsborough schools that began earlier this summer and that are still under way were shut down last week by the township Building Department for failure to pay for building permits that had been issued when the work began at the nine buildings in June.
Because the school district had not paid for the permits, no inspections had been conducted by the township Building Department since the work began earlier this summer, according to John Fielder, Township Construction Official.
The stop work orders were issued late in the day on Sept. 9 with work resuming two days later after the Hillsborough schools administration and contractor made payment on the permits, according to Fiedler.
"School property is not exempt from state requirements and permits; everybody has to comply," Fiedler said.
There are times, however, when builders don't adhere to the process, Fiedler added.
"It does happen, with commercial builders, residential contractors and homeowners, it happens with everybody," Fielder said. "I don't know whether this was intentional, but it falls in to their court as to why it happened."
An anonymous complaint about a loose piece of ductwork falling through the ceiling at Hillsborough Middle School Sept. 8 is what prompted him to look into the situation at the schools, according to Fiedler, detailed in an email exchange with Aiman Mahmoud, School Business Administrator/Board Secretary.
Much of the work is being financed by a $35.4 million building referendum passed by voters in December for upgrades and improvements to the schools' infrastructure - roofing, air quality (HVAC), power and lighting upgrades, exterior repairs and security.- but work was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teachers have since returned to school, though most students remain at home and are being taught through cyberspace, interacting with their teachers via computer links; students will return to the school buildings Sept. 29 under a hybrid plan adopted by the school system and approved by the state Department of Education; students will attend classes a few days each week in the school buildings, with the balance of their time spent at home the remainder of the school week.
The Hillsborough Education Association has been keeping residents updated with a series of open letters to the community, in an effort to ensure the schools' administration and Board of Education are focused on the health and safety standards for students and teachers, according to Henry Goodhue, HEA president.
The HEA has been highly critical of Dr. Lisa Antunes, Superintendent of Schools, and the Board of Education.
"For weeks, the HEA expressed numerous concerns related to building conditions, health and safety – most recently sharing photographic evidence of the conditions and calling for Dr. (Lisa) Antunes and Board leadership to take a collaborative approach to addressing the concerns and prioritizing health and safety. These concerns included mold, rain water running down classroom walls, stained/moldy ceiling tiles and ongoing HVAC issues," Goodhue states in the most recent community update.
"Last week, the HEA revealed that conditions have worsened and become more hazardous," Goodhue added." In addition to debris falling through vents and ceiling tiles, as well as the noise and heavy machinery disrupting lessons, a large section of ductwork collapsed into the nurse’s office at HMS. This week, roofing work at HHS caused emergency lights to detach from the ceiling and drop battery packs into the hallway.
“The level of construction required at Hillsborough Middle School and Hillsborough High School should have been reason enough for Dr. (Lisa) Antunes and Board leadership to take a more cautious approach to reopening,” Goodhue continued.“Fortunately, no students or staff were injured in the incidents, but these perils simply cannot be ignored.”
Teachers returned to the classrooms last week, while the majority of students remain at home.
Hillsborough school buildings are scheduled to re-open Sept 29th, and continue for the near future on a hybrid schedule, with students attending classes a few days each week, with the balance of their classroom time spent at home the remainder of the school week.
The following is the email exchange that occurred between Fiedler and Mahmoud:
Wednesday, Sept. 9, 10:30 a.m.:
Good morning Aiman,
I received an anonymous complaint yesterday regarding an incident at Hillsborough Middle School, in which something collapsed through the ceiling above the Nurse's office. As with any complaint, I research first to see what, if any, Permits may be open or applications under review.
The Board of Education has Construction Permit Applications for roof replacements at Woodfern School, Woods Road School, Auten Road School, Hillsborough High School, and Hillsborough Middle School. Each application was approved 7/21/20 and the Board of Education office was notified for payment on 7/23/20.
To date none of these applications have been paid for and issued, therefore no inspections have been conducted. I now have reason to believe there is a Work Without Permit situation which may have caused this incident at Hillsborough Middle School, and warrants immediate investigation by our Department.
Additionally, we have other Construction Permit Applications which were rejected during plan review and not responded to by the Board of Education's Design Professionals and/or Contractors.
Please confirm if these roof projects are complete and what time this afternoon I can visit Hillsborough Middle School to investigate the above referenced complaint.
Fiedler spent Sept. 9 visiting the different schools to assess the scope of the work; Mahmoud made arrangements for representatives of the schools and contractors to meet with Fiedler, who sent a follow-up email to Mahmoud after his on-site visits:
Wednesday, Sept. 9, 5:45 p.m.:
Good evening Aiman,
Thank you again for having Tony Deluca meet me today at Hillsborough Middle School. Keith Gratto walked me to the area of concern at the Nurse's office and stated that the roofers had disconnected the bathroom exhaust fan duct from above the ceiling space while working in that area, and it fell through the ceiling tiles.
Keith stated that he believed the roofers reconnected it and I'm glad to hear that nobody was hurt. We then went onto the roof to see the progress of the work, and the area believed to be where the bath exhaust duct was located.
Since there was no visible exhaust termination point, the bath exhaust may be connected to the roof top unit fan, which is common practice in non-residential buildings. Before leaving the site I advised both Tony and Keith, that the roofing contractor is allowed only to complete the necessary work to make the building weather tight, and not to return until they obtain the required Permit.
A Stop Work Order and Work Without Permit Penalty Notice will be issued.
After leaving Hillsborough Middle School, I visited the other schools with Construction Permit Applications for roof replacements that have not been paid for since July, including Woodfern School, Woods Road School, Auten Road School, and Hillsborough High School.
The progress of each roof was visible from the outside and were found to be either in progress or nearly completed. Each of these will also be issued a Stop Work Order and Work Without Permit Penalty Notice.
Woodfern School, Woods Road School, Auten Road School, and Hillsborough Middle School, each have details on the plans for removing and reinstalling rooftop units on the existing curbing as part of those projects.
What is concerning about this scope of work, is that it cannot be done by the roofers and must be done by appropriately licensed New Jersey Contractors. Permit Updates will be required for Electrical, Plumbing and possibly Fire for the disconnecting and reconnecting of gas piping, condensate lines, electrical wiring, and duct detectors as applicable.
I called USA General Contractors Corp., and advised Lilly of the above, and further suggested that a meeting with my staff be scheduled to clarify the scope of work at each school before any work is allowed to continue. Greg Severetas of USA General called me and I advised him of the same.
Feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns.
Mahmoud replied to Fiedler's email:
Wednesday, Sept. 9, 9:56 p.m., Sept. 9, 9:56 p.m.:
Thank you for the update. We are deeply troubled by this and have expressed our concerns to our Architect and Roofer.
Tony mentioned that you may have a concern with staff in the buildings during construction. Please let me know your thoughts on this when you have a chance.
Since this is such a critical item, do you think once we pay for the permits, we will have them the same day? I do realize you want to meet with the contractor and I am sure they will be anxious to resolve this asap.
I am truly sorry for the sequence of events that have led to this. We will do whatever it takes and follow through on all required protocols. Thank you!
Fiedler replied to Mahmound the next day, sending copies of his emails to several Hillsborough school administrators, including Antunes::
Thursday, Sept. 10, 8:51 a.m.:
Good morning Aiman.
I am out the remainder of the week but Fire Subcode Official Ed Allatt, and Building Subcode Official Rich Perlman will be covering for me. Both are up-to-date on this situation.
I'm sure this can all be resolved somewhat promptly, but more clarification on the scope of work will be necessary and Permit Updates may be required.
If the rooftop units are being removed and reinstalled as stated on the plans of four buildings, then the areas inside the school below these units should not be occupied while there is a crane in use overhead.
The issues were addressed and resolved the following day, according to Fiedler.
"The contactor paid for the permits and work was allowed to continue," Fiedler said.
The HEA has filed multiple health and safety complaints related to the conditions at each of the school buildings with the NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development under Public Employee Occupational Health and Safety, and demanded to be included in all inspections.
"We cannot understand how Dr. Antunes and Board leadership could be so careless with the community’s trust, and more importantly with the safety of students and staff,” Goodhue said.
Michael Callahan, director of Human Resources for the Hillsborough schools, issued the following response to the HEA complaints earlier this week:
"The District maintains, as Dr. Antunes noted in her opening address, that all nine schools meet the minimum standards defined in The Road Back guidelines developed by the New Jersey Department of Education. The District Restart Committee collectively worked over 2,000 hours to ensure a safe reopening for our students and staff.
"The Department of Education approved the District Restart Plan and while anything may happen between now and Sept. 29, the District looks forward to continuing with the successful reopening that is very much underway.
"We will continue to work toward solutions to any issues or problems that arise and seek to do so collaboratively when possible to do so."
Fiedler estimates it will be "several" weeks before the roofing projects at Hilllsborough High School and Hillsborough Middle School are completed, at which point a final inspection will be made.