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School's lawyer blasts health department

March 06, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Special to The Herald-Mail

BOLIVAR, W.Va. -- The director and chief sanitarian of the Jefferson County Health Department came under fire Friday from an attorney representing Bolivar Christian Academy, whose license the department revoked last month for fire code violations.

Health department director Amy Jones and department sanitarian William Zaleski seemed undeterred when criticized by attorney Harry P. Waddell during a meeting of the department's board of directors.

Waddell said Jones and Zaleski did not have the authority to revoke the school's license. Only the state fire marshal can perform fire code inspections, he said.

The revocation order came in a letter to school officials Feb. 23, three days after Zaleski entered the school following a routine inspection of a new septic system. Once inside the classroom area, Zaleski noted the lack of sprinkler and fire alarm systems. He threatened to close the school, which has been operating at that location for four years.

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The next day, Jones joined Zaleski in another inspection and told school officials their license would be pulled.

The health department has made annual inspections of the school for the last four years without incident, said the Rev. B.G. Turner, pastor of Bolivar Pentecostal Church on Old Taylor Road.

The school, which operates in the church's basement, has 44 students through grade six and five teachers. Classes were moved to Rocky Spring Church on Leetown Pike.

The question of fire code violations was never raised in previous inspections, Waddell said.

"It was highly improper and an abuse of power," he said.

The West Virginia fire code does not require sprinklers in private schools, he said.

"You had no business shutting them down. You should have referred it to the fire marshal," Waddell said. "You've done them a great deal of harm."

Sticking to her guns, Jones said she was "surprised that the school officials would hold classes in that building. It's unsafe for children. It's totally ridiculous to reopen that school."

Jones said there is only one exit and some small basement windows that "not many children could climb out of."

The classrooms have smoke detectors, but they are not hard-wired, Jones said. There was also no evidence that school officials held fire drills, she said.

Robert M. Johnson, chairman of the health department board of directors, agreed with Jones. He said he would not let his children attend classes in the school.

Health department officials agreed to refer fire code issues to the fire marshal's office in the future, but would close a building immediately if it was deemed unsafe.

All agreed students would stay at Rocky Spring Church until the fire marshal inspects the Bolivar school. That could occur as early as next week, officials said.

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