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Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part I

Updated: Wednesday, August 21 2013, 02:04 PM EDT

A News 13 investigation exposes serious fire code violations at Buncombe County schools.  We found violations have been reported year after year and now a former electrician for the school district is blowing the whistle, claiming school officials told him not to pull the required permits and life safety issues were not inspected. Buncombe County has 42 public schools and more than 25,000 students. We inspected hundreds of safety records at every school for the past 2 years and we uncovered disturbing details that led up to this alarming failure.

As day breaks over Buncombe County, we begin our busy lives.  Parents send their kids off to school and the last thing they should have to worry about is their child's safety. But a News 13 investigation found maybe they should.
John Payne is a former school electrician and he warns, "They've got safety issues, there's safety issues out there."

After reviewing hundreds of safety documents we found fire code violations at many schools noted right on the reports. Inspection after inspection, things like emergency lighting and exit signs not working, year after year.  Even more concerning is the fact we found electrical and fire safety work done at Buncombe schools before 2009 may not be up to code.

Investigative reporter Mike Mason asked the Director of Permits and Inspections, Matt Stone, “How do we know if anything done prior to that was done properly?"  Stone replied, "As of now we don't know."

News 13 found dozens of classrooms throughout the district riddled with alarming failures. Fire Marshal Terry Gentry is responsible for inspecting each school twice a year. Despite this, we found many problems overlooked. Exit signs and emergency lights were broken or not working for months and in some cases even years. Mason asked Gentry if this was, "Just an oversight?" Gentry replied, "Evidently on my part."

The school district's maintenance department is also charged with inspecting fire alarm systems once a year. On their reports, workers noted issues such as the fire alarm pull station at Black Mountain Elementary not working in the cafeteria for 2 years.  At Cane Creek Middle batteries in two of the booster power supplies failed in 2011 and 2012 and that could compromise the school's fire alarm system.

Gentry assured us, "If they don't correct it then they will get, when I say a citation there will be a monetary figure attached to it to the school system." Mason then asked, "How long does it take for that to happen?" Gentry replied, "Generally give them at least a year from the first time it's found, to get it fixed." But when Mason pressed Gentry, insisting, "They've had over a year since it was found and there was no citation." Gentry admitted,  "Well that's, all I can say is it's an oversight on my part."

In fact, we found several schools reported year after year for having dead batteries powering the fire alarm system. At Charles Owen Middle the batteries were dead in 2011 and 2012. On the reports inspectors noted those batteries were 5 years old and needed to be replaced.

Payne worked as an electrician for the school district for more than 5 years and received good evaluations but he recently retired. Payne says he's worried about student safety and now wants to blow the whistle on what he calls the district's ‘dirty little secret’. When asked why he didn’t pull permits for work he performed, Payne replied, "Because we were told not to."

Payne says for years the district has failed to pull permits for jobs involving fire code and electrical work. State law requires these permits in order to ensure the work is inspected and up to code and that students are safe. Payne knows how serious these issues are saying, "I could go out and hook up something wrong and a kid could get shocked or whatever. A fire could break out."
Payne says he has all the proof to back up his claims. For years he kept copies of hundreds of work orders for jobs requiring permits. He says those permits that were never pulled by the school district's electrical supervisor; Scott Emory. Payne maintains, "I said are you (Emory) going to get this inspected and he said 'No'. So that's the reason I kept records of the jobs I installed for my protection."

Those jobs include things like installing a new power panel at Pisgah Elementary in 2009. That same year Payne also installed a lift station at the auto shop at Enka High and in 2011 he rewired the greenhouse at TC Roberson , all without permits.

Matt Stone is Director of Buncombe County's Department of Permits and Inspections. After we gave him copies of the work orders he confirmed permits were required for each of those jobs but none were pulled. Payne contends Emory specifically told him and his colleagues not to pull any permits, saying, "I questioned him with jobs that i would install and there were other guys who would question, you know, why aren't we getting things inspected and it was 'we don't want them inspected."

We took these allegations to Emory's boss, Greg Fox, who is the school district's Director of Maintenance. Fox said, "Well, I don't know what Scott Emory said, he's my electrical supervisor, told this employee that you're talking about. I would have to talk to Scott Emory and you would have to ask him that question, I wasn't there, don't know what Mr. Emory had told this individual."  Fox maintained he wasn’t aware of Payne’s allegations saying,  "Absolutely not, Scott having that discussion with an employee, no."

Payne claims Fox is not telling the truth but Fox denies his department did anything wrong. It’s something that will be decided by Stone's department. News 13 has since obtained 49 work orders for electrical work done in Buncombe schools. Since we're told they were all done without the required permits, we turned them in to Matt Stone. He's now launching an investigation into the issues we uncovered. Stone’s initial review shows permits were required for work done by school electricians but those permits were not pulled with his office.  Stone says his department will now have to, “Go back and open them all up and start an investigation on all of them."

Stone says the county has now launched a formal investigation into the issues we exposed.  If you'd like to see a list of the schools which had "repeat" violations, click here.

News 13 has also found more than a dozen private contractors who did work at the district without the required permits. They now face hefty fines and discipline by the state and some are saying that's not fair because school officials are the ones who told them not to pull any permits. That's coming up Tuesday night at 6pm.

Last Friday, the Superintendent also sent us the following written statement which he asked us to incorporate in our report.

“Improving and maintaining the safety of the 42 schools in buncombe county schools is a top priority.  Our maintenance department includes licensed professionals who help process over 20,000 work orders each year.  In addition, we work closely with the buncombe county inspections department and Fire Marshall to ensure safety and permitting compliance.  Many jobs do not require permits and of those that do, less than 1% have been identified as having permitting deficiencies.  For contracted work, the contractor is required to pull and comply with any permit directly.  Errors are acknowledged and corrected.” - Superintendent Tony Baldwin.

By Mike Mason

Follow Mike Mason on Twitter at @MikeMason1

Related Links:

Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part I

Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part II

Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part III

Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part IV

Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part V

Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part VI

Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part I

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