WALL TOWNSHIP — There was minimal attendance but plenty of noise Tuesday night at a special public presentation of an investigative report that “did not find any wrongdoing” regarding the now-demolished Central Elementary School trailer classrooms.
Five members of the public attended the Wall board of education’s presentation in the high school cafeteria, during which board of education attorney Anthony Sciarrillo presented the findings of his firm, Sciarrillo, Cornell, Merlino, McKeever & Osborne of Westfield. The report was first made public on Friday when posted on the district website.
Mr. Sciarrillo said his firm reviewed over 8,000 documents and spent over 900 hours in its nine-month investigation, which culminated in the 28-page report presented Tuesday. The report is available on the district’s website, and the 8,000-plus documents are available to the public via USB flash drive upon request, he said.
The cost in legal fees to the district of the probe was not immediately available.
Two trailers [also known as temporary classroom units or TCUs] that had housed four classrooms at Central Elementary School since 2007 were removed over the summer in 2020 after deterioration was discovered during a siding repair project in 2019.
The discovery set off a controversy, with parents and community members citing complaints they had made about the condition of the trailers and the handling of communications about the matter by school officials.
The controversy largely subsided once the trailers were removed and students were relocated back to the Central Elementary School main building.
Only two members of the public, Betsy Cross and Kathleen Doran, spoke at length publicly about the investigative report’s findings on Tuesday night.
Ms. Cross, at one point, questioned the legitimacy of documents cited in the report, suggesting they may be fraudulent or “forged,” a claim that Mr. Sciarrillo quickly dismissed.
After a security officer warned Ms.Cross several times to stop disrupting Mr. Sciarrillo’s presentation, the meeting was paused when she was asked to leave. But BOE President Ralph Addonizio then determined she could stay if she agreed to stop shouting out while others were speaking.
According to Mr. Sciarrillo, a list was compiled of 70 potential interviewees, including “administrators, staff members, parents, engineers, architects, [Monmouth] county officials and contractors.” Of that list, 42 individuals were interviewed.
The report noted that representatives from Mobilease Modular Inc., the company who provided the trailers, declined to participate in the investigation or be interviewed and directed Mr. Sciarrillo’s office to cease contact. Mobilease officials chose to not participate in the investigation after they were directly contacted by Ms. Cross, Mr. Sciarrillo said.
This is the third investigation into the matter since the spring of 2020.
In the spring of 2020, the district’s then-interim superintendent Henry Cram requested the school conduct its own internal investigation into the trailers. Mr. Cram’s five-page report still left many unanswered questions, according to board members, and the board asked Mr. Sciarrillo to conduct a more thorough investigation into the situation.
Mr. Sciarrillo began interviewing anyone wishing to be interviewed until the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office asked him to stop while it conducted its own investigation.
On Dec. 8, 2020, the Prosecutor’s Office concluded its investigation, determining there was “no criminality” on the district’s behalf regarding the trailers. Mr. Sciarrillo then said he expected the district’s own report to be ready by February.
Mr. Sciarrillo spent much of the report putting to bed “urban myths” that he said have emerged over the years.
A LONG HISTORY
In 2004, Wall Township voters shot down an $11.2 million referendum that would have covered costs for additional classroom space at Central Elementary School amid rising enrollment in the district, according to the report.
In May 2007, the Wall BOE approved the installation of two TCUs from the lowest responsible bidder, Mobilease, for $339,391, which was then later approved by the New Jersey Department of Education in June.
The report determined that the used trailers were likely built in 1996 by Penn Lyon Homes Corps, and had previously been used by the Princeton Public Schools system, and were refurbished before they came to Wall, complete with a required educational seal. A certificate of occupancy was issued by Wall Township in September 2007.
Almost immediately, issues began with the trailers in the 2007-2008 school year, first with leaking in the roof and later with ants and mice problems. Issues with the doors, lighting, pests and water continued through 2015. Water damage and termite damage caused wood to rot. No indications of mice were ever found again in the trailers.
Mr. Sciarrillo said Tuesday that many of these repairs were typical and “were things that would occur under normal circumstances.” He said the Alliance Pest Control Services, whose services the district hired, agreed the pest problems were not out of the ordinary.
According to Mr. Sciarrillo, a trailer siding-replacement project was considered in 2011 and 2014 but it was not done then.
When the siding-replacement project finally began in 2019 and the extent of the damage was revealed, soil and air-quality testing was done on the trailer site on three separate occasions.
After allegations were made of human sewage underneath the trailers, the soil was tested and no presence of fecal matter or urine was found in the soil. Also, no evidence of asbestos, an underground storage tank or lead-based paint were found, according to the report.
The trailers were ultimately demolished by the Monmouth County Department of Public Works.
The report notes “no confirmed instances of either a staff member or a student becoming ill due to their presence in their trailers while being used as classrooms.”
According to the report, in follow-up interviews regarding the trailers, only one staff member “felt that the time spent in the trailers had a negative effect on his/her respiratory functioning.” However, the report notes “there was no report of an ongoing issue related to that staff member.”
Additionally, there was a report of one student “who is claimed to have had a negative medical issue as a result of the condition of the trailers,” however the board has heard nothing further about this complaint.
Mr. Addonizio told The Coast Star that the board members are happy to now put the issue behind them and move forward.
The administration will be more cautious moving forward concerning the school’s facilities, he said.
“As a district, we’re happy to put the trailer investigation to a rest for good,” he told The Coast Star.
“The investigation showed us as a community how important it is to invest back in our facilities.”
“Going forward, we as a board have made improvements to how things are maintained and communicated out. We want to make sure we never wind up with one of our buildings not getting the upkeep it needs,” he said, citing the hiring of new Facilities Manager Nicholas Moretta, who Mr. Addonizio said has already begun to address issues in the district’s buildings.
“The board, as soon as something happens, addresses it, such as the mercury in the high school gym floor and the flooding that took place at Central School prior to the start of the last school year,” he said.
Moving forward, Mr. Addonizio said, a committee will randomly tour some of the district’s buildings monthly “to get a feel for what’s going on in them and question things for any potential upgrades or repairs that may be needed.”
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