NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- The first day of school is always an exciting day for students, teachers, staff and parents. In New Rochelle, that first day of school entailed a serious violation of New York State law.
The New York State Education Department Facilities website states:
No building which is owned, operated or leased by a board of education or a board of cooperative educational services shall be occupied or otherwise used unless the building has a valid certificate of occupancy issued by the commissioner". (Section 155.4.c of the Regulations of the Commissioner of Education.) The Certificate of Occupancy (CO) must be issued by the Department and posted in a prominent place in the building prior to occupancy or use of the building. If a school district is occupying or using a building which has never received a Certificate of Occupancy (CO), the district is in violation of Section 155.4.
New York State Education Department Fire Safety Report website states:
All buildings which are owned, operated, or leased by a public school district or BOCES must be inspected for fire safety at least annually. No building which is owned, operated, or leased by a public school district or BOCES may be occupied or otherwise used unless the building has a valid Certificate of Occupancy issued by the Commissioner.
At last week’s meeting of the District-Wide Health and Safety Committee, Facilities Manager Carl Thurnau disclosed to the committee for the first time that the City School District of New Rochelle opened their doors last fall despite numerous fire safety violations and without a required Certificates of Occupancy for any of the District’s buildings including 11 school buildings, two maintenance facilities and a storage facility.
Carl Thurnau was the Director of Facilities for the New York State Education Department for many years until he retired last summer. His start date with the New Rochelle School District was September 12, 2016.
The SED Facilities Planning web site states: "A district using a building which does not have a valid CO should stop using the building until a CO is received”, adding, “in every case, the district must send a letter to Facilities Planning, Room 1060 EBA, Albany, New York 12234, advising of the need to obtain a CO.”
New Rochelle School District buildings should have been closed from August 1 to November 23, 2016.
They were not.
The 2016-17 School Year in New Rochelle began on September 6 with a Superintendent Conference Day for all teachers and staff. Most schools opened the following day, on September 7, except for New Rochelle High School which opened for 9th graders on September 7, 9th and 10th graders on September 8 and all grades on September 9.
Thurnau told the Committee that when he reported for work on September 12 he learned that none of the school buildings had been granted a Certificate of Occupancy. They had all expired on August 1, 2016. Prior to Thurnau’s arrival in New Rochelle, the Health & Safety Committee had raised repeated questions about fire safety issues in the school. Administration officials were asked specifically how the schools could open with outstanding fire safety violations. No answer was ever provided. No the Committee knows why.
Thurnau told the Committee he worked with his former colleagues at SED Facilities to obtain Certificates of Occupancy for most buildings and Temporary Certificates of Occupancy for others.
The SED web site states: “The electronic submission of a “clean” Fire Safety Report will immediately generate an annual Certificate of Occupancy. The submission of a Fire Safety Report with uncorrected violations will generate either a temporary Certificate of Occupancy or NO Certificate of Occupancy – based on the severity of the fire code violations. Work should commence as soon as possible to correct all fire code violations.”
More than three months after the previous Certificates of Occupancy had expired Certificates of Occupancy and Temporary Certificates of Occupancy were issued on November 23, 2016.
Certificates of Occupancy were issued New Rochelle High School, Albert Leonard Middle School, The Alternative Campus at St. Gabes, Barnard School, Jefferson Elementary School, Ward Elementary School, Grove Street Facility, Cliff Street Facility and a previously undocumented Storage Facility at New Rochelle High School (where food is sold during football games).
Temporary Certificates of Occupancy were issued to Isaac E. Young Middle School, Columbus Elementary School, Davis Elementary School and Trinity Elementary School.
All Certificates of Occupancy and Temporary Certificates of Occupancy were backdated to August 1, 2016.
All Certificates of Occupancy are effective until August 1, 2017.
Temporary Certificates of Occupancy at Isaac E. Young Middle School, Columbus Elementary School, and Davis Elementary School expire at the end of this month, on May 31, 2017.
The Temporary Certificate of Occupancy at Trinity Elementary School expires next week, on May 9, 2017.
Thurnau told the Committee he had spoken with state officials and it was agreed to let the Temporary Certificates of Occupancy run until the end of the year, August 1, 2017.
School officials did not respond to a request for an explanation of the legal ramifications of operating a public school in New York State without a Certificate of Occupancy.
Operating schools without a Certificate of Occupancy raises questions as to what liability the District would have in the event of physical injury, death or property damage and whether the District’s insurance would cover any losses in such cases.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Robert Cox is a member of the New Rochelle District-Wide Health & Safety Committee.