City schools were open for two days earlier this year without certificates of occupancy because the district failed to correct multiple fire code violations, school district attorneys said Friday during a hearing for a suspended buildings administrator.

City schools were open for two days earlier this year without certificates of occupancy because the district failed to correct multiple fire code violations, school district attorneys said Friday during a hearing for a suspended buildings administrator.

The certificates lapsed briefly in March, and the state Education Department could have shut the schools down, Superintendent Marilyn Skermont said.

The district argues the lapse was due to now-suspended buildings chief Craig Fehlhaber’s neglect. But Fehlhaber’s attorney said the certificates would have been sent if a district employee hadn’t interfered.

Skermont said she opened the schools despite the lack of current permits because she felt the situation could be cleared up quickly by obtaining an extension.

“But it was still important to me. It wasn’t done on time,” she said. “I would have had it done two weeks before it was due.”

Here’s how the situation unfolded, according to the district’s attorneys:

- A fire inspection was completed Jan. 25, and Fehlhaber gave a report to Skermont Jan. 31 for approval before submitting it to the state. That report, which cited 129 violations, was due to the state Feb. 1.

- The district was notified in a Feb. 21 letter from the state that because of the serious fire code violations, some of which had not been corrected, neither temporary nor permanent certificates would be issued. That letter was received by the district Feb. 26.

- Documentation of some of the corrections was sent to the state Feb. 27, Feb. 28 and March 1. The certificates expired March 1.

- On March 5, Skermont contacted a state Education Department official, who agreed to send temporary certificates to allow the district more time to correct violations. Those certificates were dated March 6, but retroactively covered the period from March 1 until April 1. Permanent certificates were then issued.

School was scheduled to be open for three days during the lapse in permits, but one school day was canceled due to icy conditions.

Board of Education President Barbara Klein said she was not aware of the lapse, but operating without proper certification was unacceptable.

“We can’t have that,” she said. “We deal with children’s safety. We would certainly be in a mess if we operated like that every day.”

Temporary certificates

Fehlhaber’s attorney argued that the certificates would have been issued, but that a district employee had interfered in that process. The attorney, Dennis O’Hara, would not identify the employee.

“No schools were in danger of closing,” O’Hara said. “If the regular process had been allowed to play out, they would have had them earlier.”

But attorneys for the district assert that if Fehlhaber had stayed on top of his duties, the district could have avoided the situation.

“Had (Fehlhaber) been more diligent, gotten the corrections made and gotten the reports done earlier,” the certificates would not have lapsed, said David Larrison, the district’s attorney in the civil service hearing.

Skermont said she pleaded with the state Education Department to grant temporary certificates, saying she would dedicate staff to correct the violations around the clock.

She noted the official she spoke with was displeased with the district’s previous fire inspection reports because it seemed some violations appeared in the report every year.

The state official requested Fehlhaber be excluded from conducting the re-inspection of district buildings, she said.

Officials from the state Education Department could not be reached Friday.

The inspections

In February, several Board of Education members questioned if monthly fire reports Fehlhaber had been preparing were sufficient after the annual inspection of city schools by independent inspector Thomas Morosco found more than 129 code violations.

Some violations included blocked emergency exits, improper use of extension cords and power strips, exposed electrical boxes and non-fire resistant
materials hanging from the walls or ceilings, Skermont said in March.

Fehlhaber has said his monthly reports were scaled down versions of the required annual fire report, and might not have covered all violations listed on the state form.

All violations were corrected by March 28, Morosco said in March.

Hearing continues

Fehlhaber’s disciplinary hearing has been going on since his April suspension.

The district has accused Fehlhaber of several instances of misconduct, including neglect of his duties and incompetence.

He is fighting to retain his job through the civil service hearing. Aside from an initial 30-day period immediately after his suspension, Fehlhaber has been earning his $76,859 yearly salary.

His attorneys argue that his suspension was unwarranted and that Fehlhaber is being pushed out if his job for political reasons.

Sessions of the hearing are scheduled into next week, but additional sessions are likely to be scheduled.

Observer-Dispatch