North Park Montessori School reopens after asbestos scare

State declares building safe to resume classes

Grand Rapids Public School officials have given the North Park Montessori School, closed since late winter, a clean bill of health

Grand Rapids Public Schools reopened the North Park Montessori School for the new school year on  Aug. 20, welcoming back 380 students and 54 staff members who were moved out last winter after an asbestos exposure scare.

As a last step in a renovation project, school officials decided to replace carpeting in the building to address questions from parents about the possibility of asbestos fibers remaining in the existing carpeting.

The carpet replacement will occur during the coming school year over the winter and spring breaks, with the remaining work to be done next summer, according to an Aug. 6 letter to parents and staff from Interim Superintendent Ronald Gorman. Although the Michigan Department of Health and Human Safety (MDHHS) concluded the existing carpeting was safe, the district decided to go ahead with the replacement “out of an abundance of caution,” he said.

Gorman said all of the tests performed by MDHHS and an outside consultant gave a clean bill of health for the 111-year-old brick building , also known as “Big North Park.” The building at 3375 Cheney Ave. NE houses classes for children from the first through eighth grade.

“As outlined in the MDHHS clarification, Big North Park is perfectly safe for students and staff to return and there is ‘no risk to the health of students and staff when they enter North Park Montessori.’ (District consultant) Nova Environmental followed the strict federal guidelines for aggressive clearance air testing and the results came back none detected,” Gorman said in his letter.

“At no point in time were we advised to remove the carpet,” Gorman added. “As such, this had absolutely no impact on the construction timeline nor the process for reuniting students and staff back at Big North Park. In fact, the district proceeded with an abundance of caution and went far above and beyond what was required by law. Based on test results and input from the experts, re-occupancy could actually have occurred within weeks of the initial breach.”

Students were moved out of the North Park Montessori School last February

Fines Reduced upon Appeal 

The building was closed on Feb. 20 after possible asbestos exposure was discovered in classrooms where a new air conditioning system was being installed. The school’s students and staff were moved to classrooms at GRPS University, 1400 Fuller Ave. NE.

GRPS spokesman John Helmholdt said they were still in the process of reuniting the staff and parents with personal items that were quarantined and cleaned in the wake of the evacuation. “Everything is cleaned, bagged and tagged and stored in the gym ready for redistribution,” he said.

Despite the clean bill of health from MDHHS, in July the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) notified the district of five violations tied to compliance with Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) requirements for the school.

Helmholt said the state cut the original fines of $11,900 in half after the district appealed. The violations included failing to notify employees that materials in the building contained asbestos; allowing asbestos to accumulate above ceiling tiles in two restrooms; not providing asbestos awareness training; and allowing a non-accredited employee to design the asbestos response program.

James Harger
James Harger reported on West Michigan's economy, courts and politics for The Grand Rapids Press and Mlive.com for more than 37 years. He also is employed as Servanthood Leader at Immanuel Lutheran Church in downtown Grand Rapids. A graduate of Central Michigan University, he also has worked for publications in Holland, Mount Pleasant and Lansing. He is married to Lisa and has one daughter, who lives in Ann Arbor. Read James' full bio or email James.

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