State reports flaws, hazards at Camden High

Camden High School on Dec. 11, 2013. Here, Peggy Nicolosi, senior advisor to the Camden Superintendent of Schools, is in the balcony of the school auditorium, which is unusable except for storage. (APRIL SAUL/Staff)

A Camden High School facilities assessment report, released by the state this week, revealed serious deficiencies slated for repair since 2012, though a district spokesman said Thursday that many of the problems had been at least temporarily fixed.

The building report, prepared two years ago, lists problems in each available category, including building shell, interior construction, accessibility, electrical plumbing, heating, and ventilation.

The report was released by the Schools Development Authority, along with similar assessments of three other schools - Orange High School, Cleveland Street Elementary School in Orange, and Connors Elementary School in Hoboken - after demands from the Education Law Center in the fall.

The SDA initially rebuffed the advocacy group's request, saying the report was still being developed.

The four schools were flagged by the SDA as having serious facility deficiencies and were put on a list for immediate improvements in 2012.

In Camden, the district stepped in and completed some repairs but the major fixes, which must be funded through the state, have yet to begin.

Among the findings of the Camden assessment:

Multiple roofs in need of repair or replacement.

Crumbling terra cotta and rusted scaffolding. The scaffolding was installed to protect pedestrians from falling terra cotta.

The majority of lockers in the main building are about 20 years old and have broken latches and missing or damaged doors.

Plumbing issues, including that 15 percent of toilets and urinals in the main building and the vocational wing are not working.

All 10 electric water fountains are out of service as the district is concerned about their water quality.

An electrician who inspected the main building said the condition of the equipment on the roof poses "serious electrical hazards."

Handicapped-accessibility issues. There is only one accessible entrance within the main building, no accessibility at the main entrance, and no accessible seating in the auditorium.

The district has made temporary repairs in most of the cases cited, including work on roofs and replacing the water fountains with water coolers, spokesman Brendan Lowe said. But it is still awaiting permanent action by the state.

"This report is not new, and the district has taken action to make some immediate improvements, leaving Camden High in far better shape now than it was a few years ago," Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said in a statement. "At the same time, these are short-term solutions, and we continue to push the SDA to work with us in ensuring that Camden High students get the high-quality facility they deserve."

The SDA has been criticized for moving too slowly on critical school facility needs.

"The significance of the release of these SDA reports cannot be overestimated," said Elizabeth Athos, senior attorney at the Education Law Center. "Parents and educators have a right to know what the agency has found deficient or dangerous in their school buildings, and to pressure the agency to alleviate these situations as soon as possible."

The report also shows how, as the school's population has declined, large portions of the building have became dormant. Cosmetology classrooms and locker rooms are no longer in use. Half of the cafeteria, which has seating for 170, is not used and a second cafeteria, in the vocational wing of the building, is used only for the breakfast program.

The school, which has about 735 students, has experienced a steep decline in enrollment, as has the district in recent years.

Kristen MacLean, communications director for the SDA, said a working group made up of representatives from the district, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the SDA meets every two weeks to add and tweak the list of projects the school needs.

"There's a laundry list of issues regarding Camden High School, and what we've been doing is going through that list, making sure it is comprehensive, and determining which items we'll undertake and which items the district will undertake," MacLean said.

She said once the full list is complete, the SDA would form a budget. The district will pay for some improvements.

"The heavier lift will be on us. What we'll be doing will be millions of dollars, I'm sure," she said.

Camden High's facility problems mirror those in many of the older school buildings in the district, including Henry L. Bonsall Elementary School, J.G. Whittier Family School, Harry C. Sharp Elementary School, Woodrow Wilson High School, and Cramer Elementary, celebrating its centennial this year.

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