There’s the teacher breaking up a fight who fell through a window. The attendance office that floods every time it rains. The walkway with poor drainage that prevents elementary school children from getting to their classroom. The collapsing ceiling that turns the auditorium into a snow scene with its dust and debris. The Kindergartner who sustained serious injury from shattered glass.
Each and every principal at the 24 public schools in Hamilton Township has a story about the building they run. On Aug. 14, I toured five of Hamilton’s schools—Yardville Elementary, Hamilton High West, Robinson Elementary, Grice Middle and Alexander Elementary—to hear these stories with an entourage from the district office. Superintendent Scott Rocco, business administrator Katherine Attwood, facilities director John Miranda and Spiezle Architectural Group’s Scott Downie all accompanied me through the buildings, pointing out issues and explaining how the district’s $55.4M referendum would fix the problems.
Up for a public vote Sept. 26, the referendum is a package of repairs and security improvements; the district has a Google Tour map on the homepage of its website that shows in detail—and better than a newspaper story can—what would be fixed at each school. If approved, it would increase taxes $52.30 per year, or $4.35 per month, for a home assessed at the township average of $214,300. A home worth more would pay more, and a home valued at less would pay less than $52.30 per year.
In three of the buildings we toured, we were joined by a school administrator, who described what the referendum—on paper, just windows and pipes and roofs—means to the safety of the people who occupy the building and to the success of the school itself.
Though just a small representation from a large district, these are the kinds of stories the school district hasn’t shared before. They are stories of how the district’s aging infrastructure affects its students and staff, and by extension, its instruction. They are direct refutations of the common refrains that “Nobody’s gotten hurt before,” or “the schools were like that when I went there,” or even “they’re wasting our tax dollars.”
Set aside the fact that schools in other communities have had for years what this referendum would give Hamilton. Forget that Hamilton’s schools still are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act three decades after the ADA’s passage. Really, only one thing matters when it comes to this referendum: everything on the list will have to be repaired soon. The options are either they’re fixed now according to a plan assembled and vetted by school district officials, Board of Education members and, at meetings, members of the public. Or they will be fixed when they fully break—and there’s no guarantee the buildings will be empty when that happens or how much the damage would cost the district and its taxpayers then.
‘But Hamilton’s voters have the final say on all this Sept. 26… In the end, the power is yours.’
Rocco will be meeting with the community to discuss the referendum several times this month: Wednesday, Sept. 6 at McGalliard Elementary, Thursday, Sept. 7 at Morgan Elementary, Monday, Sept. 11 at Crockett Middle, and Monday, Sept. 18 at Nottingham High. All meetings start at 7 p.m.
But Hamilton’s voters have the final say on all this Sept. 26 from 2-8 p.m, after the school officials, Board of Education members and even newspaper editors have finished their spiels.
In the end, the power is yours.
* * *
Our first stop was Yardville Elementary School, which at 79 years old is just a bit older than the average school building in Hamilton. (The average age is 70. One quarter of the township’s public schools are more than 100 years old.)
Yardville Elementary has plenty of issues beneath the surface, like an 80-year-old sewer system with deteriorating pipes that tends to back up. Or outside, where a walkway without sufficient drainage floods when it rains, sending water into the school and preventing easy passage for students who use the school’s detached modular classrooms.
But all one needs to do to see the effects of the building’s age is to look up.
Like many schools built in the first half of the 20th century, Yardville Elementary has a grand multi-purpose room with a stage at one end and large windows around it—it’s used for shows, assemblies and any time there’s a large gathering at the school. This clearly was the crown jewel of the building when it opened in 1938, but now the ceiling is water damaged and decayed throughout. Some tiles have already fallen, and others rest askew, ready to fall. The plaster around the edges is chipped, worn and crumbling. Principal Elena Manning said a fine white dust coats anything left in the room, the ceiling’s debris creating a perpetual snow flurry.
The ceiling already has collapsed in the multi-purpose room at Lalor Elementary; large chunks of plaster crashed down onto risers where children had been performing moments earlier. Steinert High School had to close its auditorium in spring 2016—moving its school musical—because the ceiling there was about to collapse. Sayen Elementary had complete sections of ceiling tile fall in one hallway.
The issues already have been fixed at Lalor, Sayen and Steinert, but many schools in the township—like Yardville Elementary—have similarly deficient ceilings that school officials say need to be addressed. The referendum would do that.
* * *
Next we went to Hamilton High School West, built in 1929.
At the back of the building are a row of windows that have rusted shut and do not open. The roof in this section was last replaced in 1985—32 years ago—and leaks constantly. People born in that year have been out of high school 15 years now. A homeowner who replaced a roof in 1985 has probably replaced that roof another two times since then.
The leaks from the faulty roof have wreaked havoc inside the school. Like at Yardville Elementary, ceiling tiles inside Hamilton West are stained, damaged or missing. But there are portions of the ceiling in the hallways of the high school that are bowed and sagging, hanging inches from where it should be and attached to nothing at one end.
Principal Brian Smith said the school is at the mercy of the weather. When it rains, water comes into the school as if there was no roof at all. A portion of one wall had to be repaired already because rain streamed down it, destroying the wall. Crews didn’t even bother to paint where the water was; they just patched it up and called it a day.
Jerry-rigged fixes are all that can be done. Just ask the folks in the West attendance office, which has windows that don’t seal and whose staff has concocted a system of collecting water so that their office doesn’t flood every time it rains.
The problems extend beyond windows and roofs at West. The kitchen floods, the sewer pipes are cracking—or in some cases have already shattered. The top supports of the windows—called lintels—have caved in along an entire section of brick wall, which has allowed the gradual degradation of the masonry work.
The cracked and displaced bricks create more than an eyesore; they’re a structural danger. And West isn’t the only school with the problem. Mercerville Elementary has the same masonry issues.
* * *
We moved on to Robinson Elementary School, part of the township’s last big school system expansion in the 1960s—Alexander Elementary, Grice Middle, Langtree Elementary, Reynolds Middle, Sunnybrae Elementary and Steinert High were all built during this phase. Robinson and Alexander were both built in 1962 and constructed identically.
At the front of the school, there is a blacktop play area. There are markings for hopscotch and other games on the blacktop. The area is bound on three sides by a chain-link fence. On the fourth side, it abuts the school building. The building’s wall at this point is 70 percent glass.
The windows here are old and prone to shattering. This, coupled with the fact that young children often play without regard to their surroundings, has created a danger the school district wants to rectify.
Already children have been hurt. In June 2013, a Kindergartner at Alexander Elementary—which has an identical set up—collided with the glass, shattering a window. The child suffered serious, permanent injury to both arms, and required surgery. The family sued the school district, and won financial compensation.
The windows at Alexander Elementary already have been replaced with safety glass. But the original glass remains at Robinson and other schools.
* * *
Grice Middle School is another product of the 1960s boom in Hamilton, and another school where windows are an issue. Vice principal Cheryl Piotrowski showed us windows that fail to do anything a window should. Some windows at Grice no longer lock, others no longer seal and allow in rain and wind. All the windows are old and ornery. Miranda, the facilities director, said parts for them have long been discontinued and are impossible to find.
To display the issue, Miranda opened one of the windows in the corridor. It opened with a firm push. The glass inside the frame swayed.
Closing it proved to be more difficult. The track groaned as Miranda pulled, the glass vibrating more as Miranda increased his effort. Wary of breaking the window, Miranda tried a more cautious approach. But then the window didn’t budge. Without some force, the window wouldn’t close—meaning each shutting of a window at Grice is a delicate dance of coaxing the frame to close without shattering the window itself.
Piotrowski said broken windows are a regular occurrence. Backpacks, books and even a teacher have gone straight through the glass.
* * *
At our last stop, Alexander Elementary, we saw what would be possible if the referendum passes—new windows with safety glass, a new roof, a remodeled entryway and vestibule that had two layers of locking doors for added security. Downie said any school built in the last 15 years or so would already have these features. In an older district like Hamilton—where the newest school was built in 1989—the features need to be retrofitted into the schools. An approved referendum would provide the funds to do so.
The work isn’t finished at Alexander. Some piping needs to be replaced, and the school is one of eight that would be made ADA compliant. Kisthardt, McGalliard, Sunnybrae, University Heights, Wilson, Crockett and Steinert are the others. None of the schools were designed with disabled people in mind, and right now tasks like using the bathroom, navigating the hallway, going on the auditorium stage or even turning a doorknob in the schools are near impossible for certain members of the community.
In its literature about the referendum, the school district says that 40 percent of costs will be offset by state share funding if the referendum passes. This funding would not be available to the town if the referendum fails.
The school district has received a lot of questions after unveiling the referendum package. One of the most common is: “Why did the district wait to address this until things were so bad?”
The answer is, the district has tried to address facility issues for years now. A 2007 referendum defeated by voters included many of the same repairs, as well as extras like a new school and turf athletic fields. Those add-ins doomed the referendum.
The district has waited a decade to try again—this time paring down the referendum to only repairs it says are essential. Sept. 26 is a chance for voters to make their own answer to that question. The response is firmly in your hands.