For Principal at P.S. 29, Asbestos Poses Unusual Challenge

April 28, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Trudy Whitman
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

It comes with the territory; part of the job of an NYC school principal is putting out fires. But the issues that Melanie Woods, principal of P.S 29 in Cobble Hill, is facing during exterior renovation of the school are not the usual bureaucratic and academic brush fires; these are conflagrations.

A little over a decade after exterior repair costing $4.9 million, crews have returned to the school to ameliorate the same leakage problems. Information released by the School Construction Authority (SCA) stated that the work includes masonry, roof and parapet replacement, and flood elimination. There was also the possibility of asbestos abatement, depending on what was found by inspectors, according to the statement. Asbestos removal, if necessary, was to be performed by a licensed contractor and managed by an environmental consulting firm. The price tag for the 18-month project is an estimated $9.2 million, according to Frank Thomas, an SCA spokesperson. (Thomas has left the employ of the SCA since I interviewed him in March.)

Although repairs are carried out from late afternoon through 10 p.m. so as not to disrupt classrooms, problems related to the construction arose immediately. The "raking" phase — removal of mortar in preparation for new bricks and repointing — caused dust to settle in classrooms, despite window sealing and nightly cleansing. Parents continue to be assured that the film contains nothing harmful but some are dubious, and a PTA construction committee is looking into the purchase of air filters for each classroom. Principal Woods was successful in getting the SCA to suspend raking last month during the citywide standardized test period.

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Neighbors — this columnist is one of them — have been suffering from the work as well. According to a resident who has been observing the process, gritty raking debris has been routinely power-washed off catwalks and through the white netting surrounding the school, causing dust to settle on cars, front gardens and house facades. Through a neighborhood liaison, neighbors were assured by the SCA that the dust particles contain "no asbestos or any other toxic material." But in response to questions about whether it was safe or not to open windows or use air conditioners, the SCA responded: "In light of the present construction activities, it is a personal decision as to whether neighbors want to open windows . . . . [or] use their ACs."

The project has proved divisive among P.S. 29 parents themselves. There is a contingent that would like to see the reconstruction over and done. A parent of a second grader, who asked not to be identified, said that if impediments are put in the way of the job’s completion, her daughter might be living with the mess and curtailed activity until she graduates.

Things came to a head the week of April 22, when parents learned that asbestos abatement on materials surrounding windows would begin on Tuesday evening, April 23. Most seemed to be on the same page about this one: Asbestos removal must wait until the summer. A rally was planned to hammer in this demand.

Through the intervention of Melanie Woods and City Council Member Brad Lander, the asbestos work was postponed at the 11th hour, but the rally, covered heavily by the media, was not. Michael Nigro, parent of a fifth grader, called the asbestos removal schedule "reprehensible." They don’t care about our school, our teachers or our children’s health, Nigro continued. "They just care about saving money."

Both Nigro and Lander, who spoke after him, emphasized that the SCA’s plan defied NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regulations requiring postings seven days in advance of any work involving asbestos. Lander said that a process that requires an inspector to test every classroom in a school before children are permitted to enter "is not safe enough for my kids and not safe enough for kids in any school."

In a letter written to Lorraine Grillo, president and CEO of the SCA, Lander underscored safety and transparency: "Parents and teachers should not have to be on ‘standby’ regarding their children’s health. In addition, the SCA’s lack of transparency about the asbestos abatement elements on this project has made it more difficult for parents to believe that they are being given all of the relevant information."

Grillo was one of the many SCA and DEP officials present at a PTA meeting at the school on Thursday, April 26. (Concessions had been made prior to the meeting in response to the groundswell; the grimy raking work was suspended until summer recess, but the asbestos abatement will continue as planned, officials said.)

Co-PTA President Maura Sheehy
outlined the course of events that led to the lack of trust that was driving the parental movement. She stressed the job will continue only with "maximal safety protocols" in place, asking officials "if they wanted to be on the side of change" or not. She introduced Alexis Demopoulos, M.D., a neuro-oncologist, who spoke of the hazards of fine particulate matter to children, and Carl Schwartz, a builder and engineer, who discussed the monitoring process that should be — and is not — taking place in the school.

Grillo apologized for "perhaps not communicating effectively" with parents and school staff, but there was an audible collective gasp from the audience when she added, "Our typical routine is not quite enough for you." The implication, of course, was that in communities less well-equipped to advocate for their children, the SCA rides roughshod. Grillo attempted to backtrack later on in the meeting, but the damage had been done.

After the presentations, angry parents lined up at the microphone for the opportunity to question and vent. The meeting, which began at 7 p.m., lasted until 10:30. At one point, Principal Woods asked how many parents would pull their children from P.S. 29 for homeschooling if the asbestos abatement were to continue on schedule. Many hands waved in the air.

In a telephone interview the following morning, Woods, who will retire at the end of the school year, said that she was "very sad that some people are going to feel that they have no recourse but homeschooling" but that she would "support every parent in their decision."

Asked about her biggest concern regarding the project, Woods responded that she felt "secure about asbestos abatement. My concern is the dust." The raking material has not been tested, she stated. The fine dust itself is harmful and may contain other hazardous elements, and despite containment efforts, the interior of the school was dusty after each night’s work.

In the end, Woods concluded, "I’m hoping they [CSA and DEP] gain the confidence of the parent community."

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