Science Hill High School students in grades 9-12 will not attend today’s scheduled first day of class due to lingering concerns by the state fire marshal’s office over two areas of the school where students must travel between the existing building and new construction.
Science Hill is expected to be open for these grade levels on Friday, and students will be in class for a full day.
The state fire marshal’s office, which operates under the state’s Department of Commerce and Insurance, must sign off on a safety plan before giving its seal of approval. Community Tectonics, the architect for the new construction on campus, is responsible for developing and gaining approval of what is called a “Life Safety Plan.”
The glitch could affect about 2,000 students.
State officials were reviewing the plan Wednesday as Director of Schools Richard Bales announced the news at a 12:30 p.m. news conference.
“Every effort is being made to address those concerns and begin classes as soon as the approval is given,” Bales said at the afternoon news conference. “Please accept my apology for any disruption this may cause each of your children and families. Student safety is and must be our first priority.”
School and fire officials said they were disappointed that the state office had not finished what some said amounts to a safety checklist by the slated school start date, but they also were quick to say the state was just doing its job.
Bales said this is not the first time the school system had been slowed by the state fire marshal’s office.
Just hours before he made the announcement, the Johnson City Board of Education held an 8 a.m. emergency special called meeting to address the issue. There was plenty of concern to go around at the morning meeting, and the general consensus among board members, and school and city officials, was that the school system had been forced into a worrisome situation over relatively minor issues.
“This is absolutely infuriating that they’re doing this,” board member Tim Belisle said pointedly at the morning meeting. “We need to light a fire under our legislators. This is political.”
The board unanimously voted to contact state legislators and the state fire marshal’s office to see if the matter could be moved along. They also decided that if there was no definite conclusion by noon they would make alternate plans. Cell phones immediately flipped open and small groups comprised of city, school and fire department personnel began making quick decisions and plans of action to resolve the matter. But their efforts did not apparently result in a quick resolution.
Areas of concern, according to Tommy Burleson, the city’s construction agent, include the corridor behind special education classrooms, the area behind the cafeteria and the fire exit at the drama room. These last two areas are in close proximity.
Burleson told board members at the early meeting that Deputy State Fire Marshal Joseph R. Strong called him Tuesday and requested that the corridor be brought up to code, that a sidewalk to be used by students behind the cafeteria be moved further away from the building and that a special fire retardant paint be applied at the fire exit door.
Burleson said these were minor issues that could be fixed in a day if the state office would be willing to send someone out to the campus to verify the fixes.
Johnson City Interim Fire Chief Mark Scott said there was no immediate safety concerns on campus and that the plan approval is intended to provide extra precautionary measures for safety. Earlier in the day, Scott offered to place a fire-fighting crew at the school if any extra safety assurance was required.
Assistant Fire Chief Mark Finucane, who spoke with Strong early Wednesday, said he was confident classes will be ready to open Friday.
In early June, the state fire marshal’s office informed Johnson City Schools that the fire alarm system on the Science Hill 10/12 campus had been modified without approval of the state agency. But Burleson assured board members and city commissioners that the alarm systems would be up to code when construction and renovations on campus are complete.
“The city fire marshal has been signing off on everything,” Burleson said after the rather terse letter from Strong arrived. “Over the years changes have been made that the fire marshal wasn’t aware of. It is not that it doesn’t meet code, and the surprise is, he (Strong) decided to do this now.”
Burleson said there may be a little confusion due to all the construction and renovations that have been taking place on the school campus but that the monitoring and operation of fire alarm systems will be up to snuff when all is said and done.
School officials said updates would be posted on the school system's website at www.jcschools.org.