Decision regarding Love Chapel Elementary sinkhole months away as report received

Brad Hicks • Sep 14, 2012 at 8:48 AM

ERWIN — Although officials with the Unicoi County Schools System now have the engineering report on the sinkhole at Love Chapel Elementary School in hand, a decision on the school could be several months away.

Unicoi County Director of Schools Denise Brown discussed the report at Thursday’s regular meeting of the Unicoi County Board of Education. The 34-page report, which looked at the area around the wing of the school constructed in 1988 near where the sinkhole opened, was compiled by Franklin-based HSA Engineers and Scientists and offers details on how information for the report was gathered, testing methods and recommendations from the engineers.

The engineers’ scope of services included a site visit to document the property’s condition, a review of geologic and topographical information on the area, seismic testing to assess soil continuity and five boring tests.

The report states that cracks, ranging in size and severity, and damage were observed along the exterior walkway and school building’s exterior; within the building’s interior, which included several classrooms; and in the hallway of the new wing.

In their report, engineers have recommended a “cementitious grouting” process be implemented for remediation of sinkhole activity, that injection pipes be installed, that underpinning with helical piers occur, and that cosmetic repairs eventually be made. According to the report, the costs associated with grouting program could range between $100,000 to $115,000. Underpinning operations could cost between $50,000 and $60,000, according to estimates, and monitoring of the underpinning and grout injection measures would cost approximately $10,000 to $15,000, the report states.

Brown said at this point these are simply recommendations, and the board took no action on any of the engineers’ recommendations.

Brown also said when she met with the adjustor Monday to receive a copy of the report, she stated her opinion that more testing is necessary.

“My comments before the adjustor, again I’ve been very open, is ‘I will not recommend to this board to go back into that school until you can prove that it is safe and that every single thing has been checked,’ ” Brown said.

Brown said the first response to this statement was that additional testing would not be done. However, Brown said she told the adjustor that additional testing would be necessary since this report looked only at the area around the sinkhole.

“We have concerns throughout the building,” Brown said. “We have observed some cracking in an area that is on the other side of the building from the wing, so that raises a red flag for me. We observed some off in the kitchen, some cracking off in the gym, so, again, you’re talking the sinkhole happening on one side of the building, these locations are on the other side. ... We had to force them into doing more testing, just to be honest with you.”

Brown said crews were on site Wednesday to conduct seismic testing around the school perimeter and were on site Thursday to conduct floor-leveling tests in classrooms and other areas where cracking was observed. Depending on the results of the seismic tests, crews may return next week to conducts more drilling around on the premises, Brown said.

“I think we’re looking at a process of several months before we’ll really know what we can do,” Brown said.

The sinkhole at Love Chapel was discovered Aug. 18 by someone walking in the area. Crews dumped around 100 tons of rock in the sinkhole in order to stabilize it before measurements were taken. Measurements indicated that the sinkhole was around 120 feet deep, with the last 25 feet being water.

Classes at Love Chapel were canceled the week of Aug. 20 after the school system’s insurance provider requested that no one be allowed in the building, and a relocation plan for the school’s students was developed that saw Love Chapel students in kindergarten through second grade sent to Unicoi County Intermediate School and third-grade students sent to Unicoi County Middle School until further notice. This plan took effect on Aug. 27.

On Aug. 25 and 26, crews sent by Risk Management Trust, the school system’s insurance provider, conducted drilling around the sinkhole to collect soil and other samples to be used for testing. This was included in the report discussed Thursday.

“Our kids are great. They didn’t seem to miss a beat,” Love Chapel Principal Ben Evely said Thursday of the relocation. “I guess kids are just resilient, they’ve done a great job. Teachers have done a great job. Parents are happy. I mean, I think they’re just happy to have theirs kids back in school and know they’re safe and pleased with everything that’s going on.”

Brown said Thursday a little more than $39,450 has been spent on the sinkhole thus far, which includes costs associated with the labor and materials used to stabilize it and the relocation of Love Chapel’s students. The bills for such expenditures have been sent to the school system’s insurance provider, which has provided reimbursement for these relocation costs, Brown said.

The board also unanimously approved the dismissal of Melanie Koenig, a non-tenured teacher, is warranted if any of the charges against her are proven to be true. According to a document of allegations reviewed by the board Thursday, Koenig is accused of insubordination and improper conduct for an incident that occurred on Aug. 22 when she did not act on the request of Unicoi County Intermediate School Principal Debbie Lamie.

The document states Koenig was instructed by Lamie to move some of her personal belongings to another location and, upon receiving the request, became argumentative with Lamie and asked another supervisor for permission to move her items to the particular location where Lamie informed her she could not store them.

“Later that day, Ms. Koenig made an inappropriate remark in front of another teacher when she stated, ‘I don’t care what (expletive) Mrs. Lamie says,’ ” the allegations document states. “Finally, Ms. Koenig did not report for work on the following day, August 23, 2012, and failed to call or otherwise inform anyone of her absence.”

Koenig was suspended without pay on Aug. 23 pending dismissal. She has a right to a hearing before the board within 30 days of its decision.

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