It’s been more than a year since local officials first informed Chesterfield citizens about their plans to revitalize both Providence Middle School and its surrounding neighborhood. Since that initial encounter last April, they’ve had three additional community meetings.
The Capital Construction Goals and Accountability Committee, which includes members of both the School Board and Board of Supervisors, also has received regular briefings on the status of the Providence renovation project.As Midlothian resident Rodney Martin noted during a community meeting last week, one word has been noticeably absent from each of those encounters:
“Why are we just hearing about this now?” Martin asked, incredulous that removal of the cancer-causing material wasn’t included in initial plans for the school system’s revitalization program three years ago.All 10 of the local schools that were targeted for renovation or replacement as part of a $304 million bond referendum opened in 1968 or earlier, before the health risks of asbestos became widely known. All schools built prior to 1972 are assumed to contain the material unless it has been remediated during subsequent renovations.
“Everybody knows these schools have asbestos,” Martin added. “Why didn’t they prepare for this from the start?”
“I can’t speak to the past, but I can speak to now,” said Nita Mensia-Joseph, who was hired as the school system’s chief operations officer last November. Mensia-Joseph conceded that the school system should have made asbestos abatement part of the Providence construction contract that was sent out for bids earlier this year. That way, the general contractor selected to perform the renovation would also be responsible for hiring a subcontractor to remove the asbestos. In theory, such an arrangement would allow the contractor to schedule asbestos abatement to more closely coincide with the progress of construction, preventing unnecessary and costly delays.
“Going forward, we’re going to do it that way,” Mensia-Joseph said. The change won’t come in time to impact the Providence renovation – the second in a list of school revitalization projects approved by county voters in the 2013 bond referendum.
Mensia-Joseph called it unfortunate that the process for the Providence project already had been decided by the time she and John Brooks, the school system’s director of construction, were hired last year.That explanation doesn’t ring true to Martin, who suggested that school officials had time to tweak the Providence construction contract – and include asbestos abatement – after receiving results of the school’s hazardous materials survey in early January.
The consultant, Compliance Directive Solutions, was hired last year to look for asbestos, lead paint and other hazardous materials at Providence.During the survey, which was performed over six days last December, the contractor observed 145 suspect asbestos-containing materials within accessible areas of the school.According to the Jan. 4 report, laboratory analysis confirmed the presence of asbestos in 26 of the collected samples.The school system received an updated asbestos report on Jan. 28. That was a month before it first solicited construction bids for Providence.
“They had time to change the [invitation for bids],” Martin said. “Shouldn’t [Mensia-Joseph] have said, ‘Hold on, folks. The way we’re doing this isn’t going to work?’”
Citizens are especially concerned about asbestos abatement at Providence because the school will remain open and operate as normally as possible throughout the renovation process.
In order to maximize the safety of students and teachers, school officials initially envisioned completing the project in 10 phases.Scrambling to cut costs after the lower of two construction bids came in 35 percent, or more than $6 million over budget, Mensia-Joseph has proposed reducing the plan to four phases. Javaid Siddiqi, the Midlothian District’s representative on the School Board, acknowledged that construction is unlikely to begin at Providence Middle this summer because the initial bids for the renovation project came in over budget.
But Alan Lederman, the school system’s environmental manager, claimed that a licensed abatement contractor will begin removing asbestos at Providence once the 2015-16 school year ends next month.“There are established protocols we have to follow with this type of work,” he said.