Iowa City residents concerned with school board safety contractors

BY LUKE VOELZ | JUNE 24, 2011 7:20 AM

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The Iowa City School District has hired a familiar firm to handle lead safety procedures in the district — Shive-Hattery, the company state officials say botched an asbestos screening two years ago.

The firm’s safety violations during asbestos abatement at City High in 2009 have some residents questioning the district’s choice.

“Board members said there were systemic [safety] problems at last week’s meeting,” said City High parent Phil Hemingway. “Well, when you hire the same person who made the same mistake in the past, that would fall under the definition of systemic. They’re not learning from their mistakes.”

The hiring was announced at last week’s School Board meeting, following public concern about lead-paint levels in a recently renovated area of Mann Elementary.

The concern comes after the Iowa Department of Natural Resources found Shive-Hattery had violated safety procedures in its asbestos abatement at City High.

Those violations included not notifying the Iowa Natural Resources of the renovation, not inspecting the affected area before renovations, not keeping a trained supervisor on site during asbestos removal, and not sealing debris in leak-tight containers.

In September 2009, School District attorney Gordon Greta responded to the violations in a letter stating the district itself could not conclude that national asbestos-abatement procedures were violated, because the School Board had placed all abatement responsibilities with Shive-Hattery.

Hemingway said the School District needs a safety director to ensure contractors on any job follow proper procedures.

The district’s most recent safety officer, David Gurwell, retired in 2009 and has not yet been replaced.

UI Professor and district parent Edwin Stone, who recently sued the district for allegedly ignoring his and Gurwell’s open-records requests, shared Hemingway’s concern about the district’s lack of safety director.

“How much is it paying Shive-Hattery and Terracon to come in and evaluate this lead-paint thing that never should have happened in the first place?” Stone said. “Is hiring an expensive contractor after the fact the best way to do it, or would it be best to put a knowledgeable safety officer in charge and do the job properly in the beginning?”

But other residents said Shive-Hattery’s violations may have been caused by improper directions from the district.

“Are they given proper instructions from the beginning?” said Gurwell, who added he found Shive-Hattery very competent in the past. “That’s where a lot of the breakdowns occurred, that has a huge amount to do with whether Shive-Hattery performed correctly or not.”

School Board member Sarah Swisher was not on the board during the 2009 City High abatement, though she said she knew of labor grievanecs because of failed safety procedures. She said she found Shive-Hattery “honorable in its dealings with the district,” though she wanted to look into its track record further given its past with City High.

“I really hadn’t thought about that part,” she said. “ I think I’d have to check and see if there’s a reason for concern.”

Swisher said she did not wish to comment on the position of a safety director given Gurwell’s involvement in the current litigation.

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