School housing North Star teen program in Hadley may be forced to close
The North Star education program is housed in the old Russell School. JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »
HADLEY — An educational nonprofit’s future in its town-owned home has grown more tenuous following a report from local safety officials calling for the building to be closed.
Hadley’s building and health inspectors wrote to the Select Board in August with a recommendation that the town close the Russell School by Jan. 1, 2013, due to “severe life and safety issues.” The building is rented to North Star Self Directed Learning for Teens.
The Select Board has not yet addressed the recommendation, which was made by Building Commissioner Timothy Neyhart, Electrical Inspector Wilfred Danylieko, Fire Capt. Michael Spanknebel and Building Maintenance Manager Gary Berg in an Aug. 15 letter.
They stated that the “many hazards pertaining to the continued use of this building” mean the Russell School “should not be occupied.” The Jan. 1 date was recommended as a target date because “it is prior to the extreme cold weather and the concern that the heating system will not function beyond this date,” the inspectors said.
The group identified the building’s slumping second-floor ceilings, a chimney that has lost bricks near its top, an electric heater found on a chair and carbon monoxide detectors without batteries among the “life/safety” issues. They also identify the building’s old wiring, an open circuit breaker panel and a flimsy handrail on the second-floor stairwell as hazards.
Enforcing the inspectors’ recommendation would mean evicting North Star, which has leased the building since 2006. The organization’s three-year lease on the property expires in June.
Catherine Gobron, North Star programming director, acknowledged Tuesday that the building needs repairs. But whatever deficiencies it does have hardly rise to the level of life-threatening, she said, noting that no one in town has informed the organization of the recommendation to close the building in January.
“We do not want to run our business in a building that may be hazardous to our students,” Gobron said. “We do not think that this is the case, otherwise we would not be here. It’s an old building with settling stairs in need of a new furnace and handicapped accessibility. That does not read as ‘dangerous’ to me.”
Selectman Brian West said the board is due to discuss the letter in the coming weeks.
“Everybody on the board was aware of that letter in August,” West said. “We have an agenda item coming up to address that letter and sit down with North Star to discuss the situation.”
Discussion of the issue has been delayed by the fact that Select Board Chairwoman Gloria DiFulvio has been dealing with a death in the family, he said. DiFulvio sets the board’s agenda as its chairwoman. She could not be reached for comment for this article.
Town Administrator David Nixon said the board received the letter, but has “taken no action (and) scheduled no meetings” on the subject.
The renovation of Hadley’s aging buildings has emerged as a contentious topic in town over the last year. The town faces expensive repairs at Russell School, the Hadley Senior Center, North Hadley Hall, Goodwin Memorial Library and Town Hall. A Sept. 29, 2011, report by Berg, Danylieko, Neyhart and Spanknebel estimated repairs at Russell School and North Hadley Hall would cost in excess of $1.5 million for each building.
Danylieko started a petition calling for Nixon’s removal this summer out of concern that the town administrator lacked the expertise to oversee the extensive maintenance needed by town buildings. The petition was submitted to the Select Board last month with 182 signatures on it.
In early June, Danylieko, by his and Gobron’s account, told North Star officials that the organization would soon be evicted to accommodate renovations.
At the July 11 Select Board meeting, board members assured North Star officials that they had no immediate plans to evict the organization. West told Gobron and North Star Executive Director Ken Danford at the time that while the town was considering extensive renovations to the building, the organization would be apprised of all Hadley’s plans well in advance.
West also proposed the idea of a one-year lease, as it would allow for more flexibility if Hadley needed to undertake renovations.
Gobron said her understanding is that North Star will be given 12 months notice if the town plans not to renew the lease. She said the organization would like to stay at the Russell School. The town has been a good landlord and North Star’s presence there has helped boost its stature, Gobron said. The organization, which promotes a self-directed approach to education, had 80 students at the end of the last school year, the most in its 17-year history, she said.
Nonetheless, North Star is making contingency plans in the event the Select Board decides not to renew the lease in June, she said.
“We are not going to give up on our lease, but we are putting feelers out there for other options,” Gobron said. “If the town chooses to renew our lease we prefer to stay.”
“I recognize the situation they are in,” she added. “They have to maintain (their buildings). It’s expensive. They have to figure out what is best for them.”
List of concerns
North Star’s lease stipulates that Hadley give the organization at least 90 days notice if it plans to terminate the contract. The organization pays Hadley $30,000 annually for use of the building. The town is responsible for all structural repairs to the building, including electrical, plumbing, heating and fire alarm systems, while North Star is responsible for day-to-day maintenance and utilities, according to a copy of the lease.
In their Aug. 15 letter, Berg, Danylieko, Neyhart and Spanknebel attached two past memos, one from August 2011 and one from November 2011, detailing their concerns about the building. In both, they list the deteriorating condition of the east, north and west entrances to the building, its old wiring and a first-floor bathroom that is out of code. The November letter cites as “life/safety issues” a falling ceiling in second-floor classrooms as well as several non-working urinals and a chimney in need of re-pointing.
In an interview Tuesday, Neyhart said the building’s roof is in need of repair following recent reports of a leak.
“We are going to have to do some shoring up of the roof so it won’t collapse,” Neyhart said. Asked if he thought it could collapse, he said, “I am concerned about it. It hasn’t seen maintenance in some time.”
He declined to comment on whether the building is safe for children.
The November 2011 report listed the roof in “good shape,” but noted that “100-plus cracked slate shingles should be replaced.”
Danylieko said his concern was primarily with the basement, where there is loose wiring hanging from the ceiling.
“They do have some serious electrical problems,” he said.
North Star does not use the space, but subleases it to Art Studio Hadley, which holds weekly art classes there, Gobron said.
“We have had no indication from the Select Board on whether we may continue hosting the art studio subletting the basement,” Gobron said. “In a personal conversation with the building inspector, I agreed to discontinue hosting the art studio based on his concerns, but asked that we give them some months to relocate.”
The town has given North Star no timetable on when Art Studio Hadley needs to be out, she said.
Nixon said Hadley voters will be asked at a special Town Meeting Oct. 25 to appropriate $30,000 for a study that will outline the scope of work needed on all town buildings. The information gleaned in that study will help the Select Board make an informed decision about what repairs are needed at the Russell School and other town buildings, he said.
West, the Hadley selectman, agreed that the town needs to develop a plan before beginning repairs to its buildings. But in the near term, he said, the inspectors’ concerns about Russell School need to be addressed.
“We need to have a conversation — is this something we can improve or do we need to shut it down?” he said.
North Star has been a good tenant and would be advised of Hadley’s plans in advance, he said.