At the March 26 Washington Township Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Joseph Bollendorf said remedying the mercury-in-the-floors situation was all about “doing the right thing, nothing more, nothing less.”
Bollendorf, and the board, put their money where their mouth is on April 3 by calling a special meeting to discuss reallocating funds to replace the floors over the summer.
Before that, however, Bollendorf released a message stating no activity or instruction is to occur on any of the nine effected floors for the remainder of the school year. He took into account the data presented by the district engineer, Annina Hogan, and certified industrial hygienist, Michael Menz.
“Although the test results and data presented by our district engineer and certified industrial hygienist indicate that our gyms tested well below the NJDOH guidelines and that continued use of the gyms does not present any short- or long-term health risk based on the most advanced air quality testing, we feel this prudent step will put the minds of our community, our staff and our students at ease,” he said via a letter sent to Washington Township Public School staff and families.
Whitman Elementary School physical education teacher Adam Clark thinks this is a step in the right direction.
“I think it’s definitely important to put the kids’ safety and our safety as the top priority, so I support anything that leads our instruction to that direction,” he said. “With that being said, there’s a lot of unknown questions we’d still like answers to regarding equipment and use of [it] and just putting our minds at ease walking in and out of the gym to be able to use those pieces of equipment. It’s some things we’re still trying to put our fingers and heads on and trying to get some answers to, but at this moment I think the teachers at our school and throughout the district as well as myself can proudly say we want to keep the kids safe, we want to keep ourselves safe and we want our schools to be safe.”
Hurffville Elementary School physical education teacher Melissa McNally echoed Clark’s statement
“I think right now it’s the prudent thing to do, it’s the safest thing to do. We don’t really know what these mercury levels can cause,” she said. “There’s not enough data. This is a very new issue, so why would we risk it? Let’s get these kids out of that setting and do the best that we can with what we have moving forward, and when we get the clearance that it’s safe to be in our gyms again, after this is remedied, we’ll go back to teaching our curriculum the way that we have in the past. In the meantime, we’re going to need to be a little creative and do the best we can.”
With removing the students and staff from the gyms, Bollendorf believes the staff can better fulfill the emotional side of learning. Without the cloud of concern, anxiety and nervousness over their head, the staff should be able to get back to doing what they do best.
“With the growing concerns being raised as it related to the gyms, it became apparent to me that we were unable to take care of that side of the equation,” Bollendorf said of the emotional side of learning. “I felt it was important to relieve that anxiety and pressure.”
He added that with the gyms being shut down for the remainder of the school year the board can turn its full attention toward remediating and replacing the gym floors.
While discontinuing activity in the gyms is a storyline, the main purpose of the meeting was to discuss the funds for replacing and remediating the floors.
“The formal purpose of this meeting is to discuss the cost and feasibility of abatement and replacement of the nine gym floors,” board president Julie Kozempel said. “The Washington Township Board of Education has already budgeted $1 million towards floor removal. Tonight we will hear a proposal to move approximately $2 million in capital funds to these projects so that all of the floors are replaced this summer. The board is committed to a helpful and swift resolution of this issue.”
The $2 million in additional funds Kozempel referenced are from the capital reserve – the board originally had money allocated for other projects but deemed this project more important for the funds. The board unanimously voted to put $3 million toward removing and replacing the floors this summer.
“So instead of increasing taxes or doing anything like a referendum to pay for this, we’re reallocating that money towards this project,” Kozempel said.
With the money figuratively in hand, the board passed a resolution for Remington and Vernick to proceed with bid specifications for the nine rubberized floors in the district.
Hogan, the representative from Remington and Vernick, said they will conduct core sampling from the concrete under the effected floors on Saturday, April 6, and the data will be available to the public by the next meeting on April 30. The core sampling will show how much, if any, mercury has seeped into the concrete. Hogan added that regardless of the amount of mercury in the concrete, a protective chemical layer will be laid down between the concrete and new gym floor.
With the school year on the home stretch, the district has its work cut out for it if it plans to replace all nine floors over the summer. Kozempel acknowledged they will have to get creative with the RFP’s, knowing it could take more than one contractor to meet the deadline.
“We want it done this summer,” she said.