Prince William County school officials contend that kindergarten students, parents and staff were never in harm’s way when the doors of John D. Jenkins Elementary were opened for events twice without a required safety permit in the days before the school opening Aug. 26.
Regardless, county officials are pressing forward with an investigation and expect to file a criminal complaint, said county spokesperson Jason Grant.
The new school, at 4060 Prince William Parkway, had been eyed for years to reduce congestion at other elementary schools in the eastern part of the county. A groundbreaking was held in September 2018. As work continued this spring, the school board decided to name the school after Jenkins, the longest-serving member of the Board of County Supervisors and a community leader in nearby Dale City and the Neabsco District.
Although county officials noted that the school was very much a construction site, email messages between permit officials and school division leaders during the hectic final days of construction show a generally pleasant back-and-forth, with expectations on both sides that a temporary permit could be issued in time for an open house late on Aug. 22.
However, the relationship apparently dissolved in a meeting early that morning as building inspectors pressed for fire-safety paperwork and finally delayed the occupancy permit, only to be told that kindergartners and parents were already in the building at that moment for an orientation program.
In an email to his supervisor, county building official Eric Mays said he told the school division representatives that no one was allowed in the building.
“I directed that all students needed to leave the school immediately,” he recounted. “I also indicated that 25 years of trust had been destroyed, and I excused myself from the meeting.”
In response, the school division has framed the issue as a miscommunication, with the kind of wrangling and confusion one would expect as the hours crunched down to the start of school.
Permits were eventually approved with no changes to the building, said Diana Gulotta, a school division spokesperson. “PWCS has always acted with the safety of students, parents, and staff as the highest priority.”
The problem, according to emails between county officials and school division administrators, was that paperwork presented to the county suggested fire sprinkler pipes weren’t installed correctly. To county officials, it was “a life safety issue” that would need to be addressed before the public was allowed into the building.
The school architects eventually updated the fire sprinkler plans, and the permit was issued Aug. 23, but that was an hour after the school had to be evacuated a second time when county officials learned a teachers’ meeting was being held in the school. Gulotta said division administrators were not aware of the meeting and pointed out that the teachers were evacuated “into a thunderstorm.”
On Wednesday, the county’s Department of Development Services was finalizing its research and anticipated filing a criminal complaint soon, said Grant, the county’s communications director. The county hasn’t determined who will be named on the complaint. Any fine would be determined by the court, he said.
Administrators on both sides have pledged increased cooperation going forward — a middle school is under construction at Potomac Shores and the county’s 13th high school is being built near Jiffy Lube Live amphitheater. Both schools are expected to open in 2021.
Jenkins Elementary opened on time, if not completely ready — a mural celebrating John Jenkins was unfinished. In his comments, schools Superintendent Steve Walts pointed out two particular traits he appreciated in the long-serving county supervisor. “He was a complimenter and a supporter,” Walts said.