Investigative Report: Alarming Failures Part III
Updated: Wednesday, August 21 2013, 02:04 PM EDT
Buncombe County's school Superintendent is reacting to a News 13 investigation into serious safety issues throughout the district. For the past two nights, we've shown you how district workers and private contractors failed to permit and inspect work involving life safety issues at dozens of schools for years.
Now Superintendent Tony Baldwin wants to assure parents he'll get to the bottom of this. We first brought this to Dr. Baldwin’s attention last October and some of the issues were addressed. But since then, we found this problem goes much deeper and because of what we found, county officials admit they can't guarantee students are safe.
A News 13 investigation began by exposing serious allegations involving life safety issues at Buncombe schools. A retired school electrician and several contractors claiming the district's maintenance department told them not to pull permits and not to have those critical safety issues inspected.
John Payne worked as an electrician for the district for the past five and a half years. When asked why his supervisors didn’t want to pull permits he replied, "They just didn't want to have to deal with the inspectors coming in the schools is what I was told."
The county's Director of Permits and Inspections, Matt Stone, is now launching an investigation after we gave him proof that jobs were done at dozens of schools but never reported to his office.
Payne, who recently retired, kept copies of hundreds of work orders for electrical jobs he did that went un-permitted and un-inspected for years. Those records have now been turned over to Stone who says, "We'll go back and open them all up and start an investigation on all of them.”
Now Superintendent Tony Baldwin is reacting to what we uncovered, saying, "Any accusation that involves safety issues, I can assure you it will be looked into."
Last Fall, News 13 first brought these issues to the Superintendent. The district's maintenance department then investigated claims that contractors were not pulling permits for things like re-roofing schools and installing fire alarms. As a result, 16 contractors were reported to the state and currently face fines and discipline. Now several are coming forward, questioning why school maintenance officials are not being held accountable as well since they're the ones who told contractors not to pull any permits. Electrical contractor, Christopher Ashe, worked with the district for 8 years. Ashe tells News 13 he asked district maintenance supervisors why they didn’t want him to pull the required permits. Ashe maintains, "They said ‘No’ ‘cause it was just a maintenance act I was performing." Ashe feels that’s not fair, especially since district supervisors haven’t been disciplined.
When confronted with Ashe’s allegations, the Superintendent told us, “The first thing I would ask to do, and this is how I try to handle situations, I'd like to have that contractor in front of me to say that."
Meanwhile, Dr. Baldwin wants to assure parents their children are safe but not everyone is willing to make that promise. In light of the issues we uncovered, Matt Stone tells us, "To guarantee their safety, no I can't.”
Matt Stone's department is currently inspecting work that was done years ago but was never permitted. There’s no word tonight on how much that is costing taxpayers.
After we interviewed the Superintendent, he 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