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Investigative Report: School Safety Inspections

Buncombe County officials say they have completed their most comprehensive school safety inspections. This comes after a News 13 investigation exposed safety and fire code violations throughout the district, like contractors doing work without the required permits. For the past six months, officials have inspected each school from top to bottom.

Buncombe County taxpayers recently spent a good chunk of change having every school inspected for safety violations. Superintendent Tony Baldwin says, "we began a series of school based inspections that included all 40 of our school campuses." Fire Marshal,Terry Gentry, says "there were many items found as far as code violations."

County inspectors and the Fire Marshal estimate it took at least 674 hours to inspect the schools, costing taxpayers more than $32,000. That number doesn't include how much the school district spent to address these issues. Officials noted hundreds of code violations.

Every school in the district failed the first round of inspections, and some even failed four or five times before passing. Gentry says, "this process was a lot more thorough than any other jurisdiction has been doing." Gentry inspects schools twice a year, but he's not required to look above ceiling tiles. This time he did. He says, "95 percent of everything we found was above ceiling."

For example, at West Buncombe Elementary, Gentry found problems with the way the fire alarm system was wired. The cables were too tight, and this meant the entire system had to be rewired.

These comprehensive inspections were prompted after News 13 exposed a series of safety issues last May.

At the September 5th School Board meeting, Jerry Vehaun summarized the outcome of the inspections. Vehaun is the county's Director of Emergency Management, and oversees Fire Marshals. Vehaun stated, "it doesn't mean there was anything really serious as far as life safety issues. I think we found two from our standpoint." She addressed the topic of life safety issues by explaining, "if you had an issue where something could easily catch fire or be in danger of falling from maybe poor construction or something that would injure or possibly seriously injure or even have a fatality involved, that would be a life safety issue."

Vehaun claims only two life safety issues were found during inspections, but state officials define life safety issues in a more broad sense. The Department of Insurance regulates Fire Marshals and school safety codes and it says, "life safety issues include any violation related to fire, storm, exits and other safety considerations."

Even though most of the district's recent violations appear minor, the state considers many to be life safety issues.  An electrical panel at Pisgah Elementary incorrectly installed, or panels loaded with improper breakers at several schools, are examples. At Enka High, a junction box was found with a regular and low voltage wires mixed together, and it was overloaded.

Whether it's a life safety issue or not, most agree it's better to simply fix the problem than to risk a student's safety. Board Chairman, Bob Rhinehart, says, "I felt our schools were safe before the inspections and this confirmed to us that they are safe."

School officials tell us they didn't keep track of the money or hours they spent addressing these violations.

 



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