The schools opened with temporary certificates of occupancy, meaning most of the construction is finished but there are lingering issues. The documents generally are valid for 90 days, yet one school – McNab Elementary in Pompano Beach – has been operating with a temporary certificate for more than six years.
It took five years before Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale and Central Park Elementary in Plantation got final certificates; and four years for Broadview Elementary School in Pompano Beach and Lyons Creek Middle in Coconut Creek to catch up. Most schools still awaiting final approvals are up to 3 years behind.
“In many of these cases, the ball may have been dropped,” said Robert Hamberger, the district’s chief building official, who took over the job in May.
He admits it has taken far too long to remedy problems and could not say when all the issues will be resolved.
McNab, Tedder Elementary in Pompano Beach and Park Trails Elementary in Parkland are still missing inspections certifying the safety of their fire, plumbing, electrical and building systems, district records show.
Hamberger insists they are safe and blames the problem primarily on missing paperwork, “simple pieces of paper that were never manufactured and forwarded from the engineer of record.”
But at McNab, teachers say the problems go beyond paperwork, pointing to missing railings, unusable bathrooms and inadequate drainage.
“Every time it rains our kids are walking down cement steps that are puddles,” said second-grade teacher Maureen McHugh, who has taught at McNab for 18 years. “We stand on the stairwells to make sure we’re catching students as they’re slipping. That’s how we’re avoiding accidents.”
Gene Farmer, director of Florida International University’s undergraduate construction management program, said the paperwork excuse wouldn’t fly in the private sector. There, city and county inspectors can evict residents from buildings that don’t meet code — especially if the electrical, fire, plumbing and mechanical inspections are in question.
“If it failed inspections and a certificate of occupancy was not issued, then that would absolutely be improper” for a facility to be occupied, he said.
There were 175 schools with temporary certificates in February 2009; it’s now down to about 75.
Parkside Elementary School in Coral Springs got its final certificate in June, but in December teachers and students were removed from one building to the main building after complaints of headaches, allergic reactions and strange smells.
The possible culprit: a lightweight concrete in an unventilated part of the roof going through the “curing process.” The smell and moisture have just one place to go—classroom ceilings, documents said.
The district hopes to complete work by the start of the next school year.
According to Florida Building Codes, “no building or structure shall be used or occupied…until the building official has issued a certificate of occupancy.” The chief building official can issue a temporary certificate before construction is 100 percent complete as long as the building can be used safely, the code says.
It’s up to the building official to determine how long the temporary certificate will be valid, according to James Miller, spokesman for the state Department of Community Affairs.
But Farmer said the building official’s discretion is limited to 90 days. He points to a section of the code that says a project is considered abandoned and its permits null and void after six months. The building official “is authorized to grant one or more extensions of time for additional periods not exceeding 90 days each,” according to the code.
“The codes are black and white,” Farmer said. “Either you comply or you don’t comply.”
Pat Santeramo, president of the Broward Teachers Union, wants the district to provide specifics.
“Employees and parents deserve to know exactly what work remains to be completed at each school and when it will be finished irrespective of its minor or serious nature,” said Santeramo.
Hamberger said while the bulk of the problem is clerical, not structural, he sent inspectors to double check the safety of all of the buildings operating on temporary certificates.
The unfinished projects being reviewed include plumbing problems, exhaust issues, fire alarms needing repair, cracked tiles, sewer line problems and broken walk-in freezers.
Hamberger said he’s put new procedures in place to make sure the problem doesn’t reoccur. Contractors must submit certain documents up to a month before asking for the final certificate of occupancy, he said.
Without them, Hamberger said he won’t sign off on the project.
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4527.