School move teaches kids a good lesson

We are very impressed by the successful team effort as the Saranac Lake Central School District moved five entire grades of students on short notice over the course of a weekend.

Gheen Environmental Services found vermiculite recently during an inspection while preparing for capital project work in the building that houses Petrova Elementary School and Saranac Lake Middle School. Vermiculite, a mineral used for insulation and fireproofing, is not toxic, but some of it was once mined from places that also contained asbestos, which is dangerous. Therefore, the vermiculite must be treated as if it is asbestos.

When it became clear that there was no good way to seal up the vermiculite, school officials decided to suck it up and begin a cleanup they estimate will cost a million dollars. They started right away, partly because once one is notified of a potentially toxic material in a school, one must deal with it, and secondly to make sure it’s all cleaned up before the new school year begins in September. Capital project work has to be done over the summer as well.

School officials dismissed students early on Friday, then spent the rest of the day and the weekend preparing for a major upheaval of students and staff that will last until the end of the school year on June 23. The third floor of the Petrova building is closed off to students, and middle schoolers — sixth through eighth grades — are now in the first floor and part of the second floor, which had been occupied by elementary schoolers. Petrova’s fourth- and fifth-graders have been moved to Bloomingdale Elementary School.

Students kept their teachers, who moved with them, and ride the same buses as they used to. That’s the right thing to do, but it meant a great deal of rescheduling by bus staff.

Monday was the first day of the changes, and everyone the Enterprise talked to said it went well. They credited good management and flexibility on everyone’s part.

“Everything was thought through pretty well,” said Fred Finn, a district bus assistant and dispatcher. “There’s going to be some bugs, of course, but I give credit to (Superintendent) Diane Fox and Bruce (Van Weelden, middle school principal) and (Petrova Principal) Bryan Munn. They handled things properly. You gotta do what you gotta do.”

“I think the staff has been really good in understanding that they need to be flexible,” Van Weelden said. “The kids aren’t going to show up in the right spot all the time. It’s like the first week all over again.”

“It’s a little chaotic, but we’ll figure it out,” district physical therapist Deb Ryan said. “That’s what we’re supposed to be teaching the children anyway, that you kind of have to go with the flow of life. So we’ll be fine.”

We admit we were surprised we didn’t hear more grief about the huge changes. It’s a major hassle, but as with many hassles, many hands make light work. It’s not as bad as we think it will be if everyone accepts the reality of the situation, plans tasks and works as a team.

We suspect it’s not just Saranac Lake; other local school districts would have done the same in this tight spot. While chatting about it with Saranac Lake Village Department of Public Works Superintendent Jeff Dora Tuesday morning, he credited the flexibility of North Country people in general. If this happened in a city, he said, there would be a lot more pushback and griping.

By not being intimidated by a huge move, starting it quickly, executing it efficiently, working as a team and coping with a little inconvenience for the sake of students’ safety, the Saranac Lake school administration, staff and faculty taught this community’s children — and its adults — a great lesson this week.