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Agency might have erred in closing school

February 26, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Special to The Herald-Mail

BOLIVAR, W.Va. -- Jefferson County Health Department officials might have overstepped their bounds when one of their employees ordered a small Christian school closed last week for violations of state fire codes.

A spokesman in Gov. Joe Manchin's office, after speaking with officials in the State Fire Marshal's Office, told leaders at Bolivar Christian Academy enforcement of fire codes rests with the fire marshal's office, not with the health department.

"Any violation found by the health department inspector should have been ... forwarded to the Fire Marshal for proper investigation and action," according to an e-mail sent Thursday to local school officials by the governor's office.

William H. Zaleski, a Jefferson County Health Department sanitarian, was at the school in the basement of Bolivar Pentecostal Church at 87 Old Taylor Road, to inspect the installation of a new septic system on Feb. 19. 

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Following his inspection, Zaleski entered the classroom area and noted a lack of sprinklers and a fire alarm system, the Rev. B.G. Turner, the church's longtime pastor, said Thursday.

"He wandered in and asked where the sprinklers were," Turner said.

Zaleski threatened to close the school, Turner said.

"We couldn't believe it," he said.

Church officials asked Zaleski and health department administrator Amy Jones to meet with them at the school the day following Zaleski's visit.

"We told them we were willing to comply with anything and we asked them for a little mercy," Turner said.

The health department inspects the school every year and no problems have been found before this, he said.

The order revoking the school's operating permit was issued Monday. In it, school officials were told to submit a plan for correcting the violations 45 days in advance of the start of construction, along with the appropriate fees.

Academy spokesman Bob Adams said the school will request an inspection from the fire marshal's office. Adams has two students in the school.

Rebecca Fitzwater, principal of the school, said the school's 44 students will start attending classes beginning Monday at 8 a.m. in temporary quarters provided by Rock Spring Church at 114 Poor Farm Road.

"My biggest concern is for our students," Fitzwater said.

"We are very blessed and grateful to have this space," Adams said. "It is a very nice facility."

On Thursday, the school's five teachers and an aide were busy getting ready for classes in the new venue. The academy holds classes from 4-year-old kindergarten through sixth grade.

The school opened 10 years ago in a building on Cheney Avenue in Bolivar. It moved to the church basement four years ago.  

Neither Amy Jones nor Zaleski returned repeated calls Thursday.

Jones is married to Dr. Robert E. Jones, Jefferson County's health officer. His name appears on the top of health department stationery.

Amy Jones was quoted Wednesday as saying her office plans to inspect about 15 day-care centers and schools by the end of the summer to ensure compliance with state laws and safety codes.

She said a review of department records indicated some of them might have opened without government review. Others no longer might be in compliance. It could not be learned if those inspections would include fire code violations.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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