PS 29 is now covered with scaffolding and tarps for a renovation project. Parents and kids protested Monday evening.
Photo by Joshua Kristal
As asbestos removal as part of a major renovation of Cobble Hill’s PS 29 commenced on Friday evening, dozens of parents kept their kids home from school on Monday. Some classes were less than half full as school began. While some parents are more concerned about asbestos removal in caulking around windows, others are worried about the dust that is getting kicked up by city work to fix leaks in the historic school building on Clinton Street between Kane and Degraw. Parents who took their children to school Monday exchanged worried greetings.
The project has resulted in weeks of nearly constant emails as parents struggle to gather and share information, and to filter through conflicting information flying around. The city says the project is safe; many parents don’t trust the city, and don’t agree. Some are talking of a temporary restraining order to get the city to delay work until more checks and balances can be put in place. Other parents want to install a special system that would prevent construction dust from entering the building. Still others say that due to the parental and PTA involvement, PS 29′s renovation project is probably the most highly monitored in the city.
Principal Melanie Raneri Wood weighed in on Sunday, saying there would be daily inspections and reports to assure parents the school is safe each morning. Some parents are planning “home schooling” circles, and Woods reminded parents in her email that the NYC DOE has a 90 percent attendance policy.
Clearly, the construction project, which began in March, has turned the school, long considered one of the best elementaries in the city, on its head.
City School Construction Authority officials visited PS 29 on Thursday night to answer questions from parents in a Town Hall type meeting. About 75 people attended, and some parents got rowdy, and angry, imploring the officials to wait until summer to begin any hazardous material work. The city said, basically, “No.”
Maura Sheehy of the PS29 PTA read a statement to start off the meeting. “We are extremely concerned,” Sheehy said. “You have failed to provide basic information that would make us feel safe.”
Renovation, dust-causing and asbestos abatement plans were sort of sprung on the PTA as they were happening, and after the PTA negotiated for more thorough dust cleanup around renovation work areas, dust was found in rooms. The city said that a window had been left open, and also, admitted in heavy questioning that it did not post notices around the school — as is required by regulation — to notify parents seven days in advance that asbestos work would be done.
“This has not earned our trust,” Sheehy said. The PTA has filed several Freedom of Information Act Requests for the city’s work permits.
Lorraine Grillo, CEO of the School Construction Authority, attended the meeting, which ran past 10 p.m., and said the project is necessary. “We didn’t just select PS 29 out of the blue,” Grillo said. “We’re here to prevent water infiltration” of the building, which leads to mold, she said.
“We want to protect your kids. We want to fix your building,” Grillo said.
Work to remove non-friable asbestos from caulking around windows was set to begin Friday evening. Grillo said that work is needed so that bricks can be replaced and other exterior work can be done, and that classrooms will be tested in the mornings to make sure there is not hazardous material present.
“This is a 17 to 18 month project. It cannot be compressed,” Grillo said.
A school parent, Denver Butson, was one of many who spoke and asked questions.
“How are we going to trust that this job will be done correctly and that our children will be protected,” he asked.
Another parent asked the principal, Woods, if provisions would be made for parents who decide to home school their children for the remainder of the school year, to ensure they graduate.
“This is outrageous,” the mother said.
“We will all have to make some personal choices,” Woods said.
It is not a peaceful spring in the usually bucolic brownstone streets of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. A major city renovation project at P.S. 29 Elementary School — to fix leaks and address other issues including asbestos abatement in historic, 1920s building on Clinton Street — has turned the school into a major construction site, with scaffolding and tarps all around, and has launched parents into high alert. There is a feeling of deep concern, and anger (I’m a parent at the school myself.)
Some parents are planning to keep their kids home while the work is done, while others have threatened to chain themselves to the school, long said to be one of the city’s best; and to file lawsuits. Some want classes held in an off-site location. There is serious talk of “occupying” the building to prevent the city from removing asbestos.
About 70 parents and a host of children showed up Monday evening to protest the asbestos abatement that was scheduled for Monday night, until the city postponed it due to weather. City Council Member Brad Lander attended the protest, urging the city to put off the construction project. Earlier in the day, Lander wrote the city.
“I am writing to strongly urge the School Construction Authority to suspend asbestos abatement work (and other work affecting air quality) at P.S. 29 in Brooklyn until the 2011-2012 school year is over. Asbestos is a known carcinogen, and the lack of clarity, transparency and discussion about asbestos abatement at P.S. 29 is of great concern,” Lander wrote.
Clearly he’d heard from many parents who are up in arms.
“Do you trust that containment, cleanup and monitoring and repeat cleanup will be done meticulously and without error and negligence? Our children’s lives depend on it!” said a flyer handed out in front of the school Monday morning.
Principal Melanie Raneri Woods announced Monday afternoon that officials from the School Construction Authority will meet with the PTA on Thursday evening, along with a representative from the Taylor Environmental Group, which is monitoring the asbestos work. The authority plans to commence work (demo and abatement) on Friday, April 27.
It’s major upheaval to say the least at Public School 29. When the city’s 18-month renovation project was first announced to parents by principal Woods in February, the PTA immediately held a series of meetings. The initial concern was that the city’s contractor planned to place construction equipment in the school’s brand new play-yard, cutting off access to a section of the play area and eliminating the school’s new food garden for a year.
Then, dust created by the construction project became the focus. Despite city assurances regarding vigorous cleanup and containment, a recent “raking” of the school exterior sent clouds of dust around the north side of the school and into some classrooms. Coupled with high pollen levels due to the lack of rain (until Sunday night’s downpour), parents of children with asthma and allergies were tremendously worried. One child went to the ER, and parents worried there was a link to the construction dust.
Willy-nilly fundraising from classroom to classroom took place with parents forking over money for air purifiers and filters.
After parents and PTA members barraged the city with concerns, the city agreed to postpone the dusty “raking” until summer.
And then, the shot that rang out. Friday night, with parents already on edge, an email went around announcing that beginning Monday night, the city planned to remove asbestos from around windows on the school. What? Asbestos? Who said anything about asbestos?
Some parental leaders said there had not been warning about asbestos removal. One involved mother says that early meetings did reveal that asbestos removal would take place, just not from the windows.
The matter of who-knew-what-when, the timing of sharing information, and whether parents were given enough notice and information to feel confident about the project, is clearly an issue.
But on the work itself, opinions differ widely. While many parents are clamoring to get the work delayed till summer, there are others who say, ‘Hey, we should take our place in the city construction line like everyone else. If we don’t get needed work done now, and get off the city’s construction schedule, when will the work get done?’
The building has suffered bad leaks for years. As we know, water is the enemy of buildings, and creates mold.
The city says the planned asbestos removal project is normal, they do it at many schools, and that construction schedules must be adhered to. Some 1,400 schools citywide are the subject of renovation projects.
Yet parents, in conversations breaking out furiously around the school at drop-off and pick-up, echo a common sentiment—when it comes to construction and hazardous materials, and their children, they don’t trust the city.
Talking with various parents Monday, feelings covered a range of territory. “It’s mass hysteria,” said one father. “Asbestos removal has been going on for 30 years. They have a strict process and guidelines they follow. This is an over-reaction.”
Yet a mom from a corner classroom that was covered in dust during recent weeks said this is all part of the democratic process.
“We need to get answers, assurances, more information. If we need to occupy the school to delay this until we get the answers, then that’s what we need to do. Why are we supposed to trust that the construction company is doing this properly? This is asbestos.”
Check out this very informative website set up by the PTA to answer questions on the construction project: