The United Church of Rockville Centre closed its nursery school on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after a heated meeting with several dozen parents on Sunday to address concerns about alleged maintenance issues at the facility.
The weekend gathering came a few days after Janice Burke, the school’s director for the past five years, resigned, alluding to the school’s maintenance as her reason for leaving in a letter posted on the United Church Nursery School’s Facebook page on Dec. 1.
“My 22 years as a parent, teacher and director have been some of the happiest times of my life,” Burke wrote. “My job as director was a labor of love. I enjoyed every minute of being with you and your children. …Due to a disagreement about the maintenance of the facility, I can no longer have my name associated with the school.”
Pepper Robinson, chairwoman of the church’s board of trustees, and Joseph Dunne, a local attorney who represents the church, fielded questions from angry parents who tried to make sense of the potential safety hazards.
“We’ve known Janice. She’s been the one we’ve communicated with our whole entire time here, and we do trust her,” Jamie Jordan, whose son attends the school, told Dunne and Robinson. “. . . Forgive us for putting our faith in her. She’s telling us that our children are unsafe in this building.”
Dunne assured parents several times that school officials had nothing to hide about the building’s condition, explaining that a leak from a radiator hung on the ceiling of one of its classrooms was reported on Nov. 29, and that the valve was repaired the next day. Despite parents voicing concerns that the ceiling radiators were not stable, Dunne added that Massapequa-based Just Right Construction inspected the radiators on Saturday and found that they were secure. Robinson also dismissed rumors of mold, saying there was none in the school.
Despite the plumbing company’s and contractor’s assurances that the leak would not happen again, Dunne said, the desks beneath it were cleared. During a tour of the classroom where the leak occurred, Dunne pointed out to parents the heavy-duty paper and orange cones beneath the radiator.
“We take your concerns very seriously,” He said “. . . There’s no way that any of this helps us if we ignore it. We have no intention of ignoring it.”
But parents demanded another inspection, as well as reports of the findings and measures taken since the leak was discovered. The church agreed to gather the documents, posting on its website on Tuesday that it was “continuing to address all concerns regarding safety” and “currently taking steps to obtain written reports and schedule additional inspections.”
Robinson told the Herald that the school would reopen on Thursday, after the paperwork was made available to parents. The Herald has not yet received an inspector’s report, as requested.
Parents also called on the school to allow the village’s building department to inspect the classrooms. Rockville Centre spokeswoman Julie Scully said that the village was contacted about this issue, and that the building department was scheduled to conduct an unofficial review of the school. “If they feel that anything is unsafe,” Scully said, “they will contact the fire marshal, who really determines if it’s safe for habitation.”
Maggie Stines, an alumna of the nursery school who now has a child there, told the Herald on Monday that she was in favor of temporarily closing the school under the circumstances. “I think it’s a good thing that they’re doing that,” she said. “I think it’s in the children’s best interests by closing it to make sure it’s safe for everybody.”
Operating since 1966, the six-classroom school, which is run by the Morris Avenue church, enrolls roughly 150 children.
“You’ve had a successful nursery school for 50 years,” Stines told Robinson on Sunday. “This is a real issue, that somebody actually walked out of the building because of a concern for what we believe is for the safety of our children.”
“I’m glad you said that somebody walked out because of a concern, you believe,” Robinson replied. “You need to remember that.”
Others asked whether the alleged maintenance issue was the sole reason that Burke left. “I think there was a history,” Dunne said, “. . . but we’re not going to talk about it.”
In a phone interview, Burke declined to comment beyond the statement she released on Facebook.
Robinson said that the parents’ concerns were discussed during a staff meeting on Monday, and that the search for a new director had begun. “We all have the same concern, the parents, the teachers and the church,” she said. “We all want the children to be safe.”