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Town may lose state aid for construction of high school

01:00 AM EST on Monday, December 15, 2003

Journal Staff Writer

NORTH KINGSTOWN -- State officials want to suspend annual school construction aid to the town because the two-year-old high school is continuing to use a band room that isn't accessible to students with disabilities.

The Governor's Commission on Disabilities says the new high school's three-tiered band room does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It has no ramp for wheelchair access. A certificate of use and occupancy from March 2002 grants North Kingstown High School conditional use of the building with the exception of band stand music room 131.

"There is litigation or hearings pending," Building Official John Lees said Friday. "Until that is resolved, I can't authorize use of it [the band room]. If they are using it, it is illegally."

Supt. James M. Halley said the band room is being used -- and has been since the start of school.

"The band room is the same as every band room in the state and the nation. And there are no regulations that says that band room can't be used," Halley said. "If the decision comes down against us, we'll go to the court system."

The state Department of Education is investigating the school's compliance with the the disabilities act and is expected to release a decision in a few weeks, said Elliot Krieger, spokesman for the Education Department.

The Rhode Island Governor's Commission on Disabilities asked the state Department of Education to withhold construction aid for the district until the violations are resolved. The district is scheduled to receive about $900,000 each year over the next 25 years in reimbursements for construction of the new high school, Krieger said.

But Halley said last night all of the accessibility violations have been resolved, citing a letter from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. The violations included rooms without visual alarms, sinks that are out of reach, showers without handrails, stairways with misplaced railings and other height violations, according to the civil rights office.

According to a letter sent to Halley last month, the federal Civil Rights Office has suspended its investigation of the allegations of discrimination against people with disabilities at the high school.

"My understanding is we can use the room. It's not a danger to anyone. We never got any complaints from students, ever," Halley said. "There were no citations."

The civil rights office has been investigating the high school for the past two years, after someone complained that the building was not accessible to people with disabilities.

The federal agency said all of the violations -- except the band room -- have been fixed. "The significant exception to accessibility is the school's band room... We have reviewed the matter with the U.S. Department of Justice, which agrees that, in its current configuration, the band room does not comply with regulations implementing Title II," according to the letter from the civil rights office.

Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, public schools must be readily accessible to and useable by persons with disabilities including those who use wheelchairs.

The civil rights office said it has ended its investigation and deferred the band room issue to the state agency, the Governor's Commission on Disabilities. However, if the problem is not resolved, the federal office will take action, according to the letter.

Despite the letter and the building inspector's assertions, Halley said the state was concerned about the band room when the building was being constructed, but the issues have been resolved.

Halley said the school's music complex is fully accessible to students, since it includes a flat chorus room with portable risers, a fully accessible stage and practice rooms, along with the tiered band room.

"There are several solutions for handicapped students: use the band room on the first level, or move to the auditorium or the other music room," Halley said.But the disability commission says that's not enough.

"The band room is built in three tiers that's not accessible. There is no way a student with a disability could climb those tiers," said Harvey Salvas, deputy coordinator for disabilities. "The School Department says they will move to another location if someone complains, but the law says that when you do new construction, it must be built to be accessible."

The disabilities commission ordered school officials to change the band room design, since construction started on the $33-million school, Salvas said.

But at a state Education Department hearing last April, Halley testified that he was unaware of problems with the band room prior to August 2002, according to a letter from the Governor's Commission to the state Education Department.

However, letters between Halley, the state Department of Education and the Governor's Commission show that Halley knew of the concerns with the band room's compliance and has insisted it meets all federal and state regulations.

In May 2001, Halley wrote a letter to state Education Commissioner Peter McWalters requesting construction reimbursement for the high school. In the letter, Halley said he was aware of the Governor's Commission on Disabilities requesting the aid be withheld and said that the architects followed all disabilities standards during construction.

"The Governor's Commission was involved throughout the process and chose not to alert us of a potential problem until the project was in the final stages of completion," Halley wrote in May 2001.

In 1999, the federal Department of Education's civil rights office cited the old high school for inaccessibility problems in the music room. Halley and Town Manager Richard Kerbel told the Journal in 1999 that they would make accommodations for students needing assistance and then address the problem when the new school was built.

Sharon Schubert, co-chairwoman of the North Kingstown Special Education Local Advisory Committee (SELAC), said she was not surprised at the noncompliance problem with the band room.

"[The administration paid] no attention to special education issues," she said. "They continue to ignore SELAC and never inform us of what's going on."

Five of the seven School Committee members said yesterday that they were unaware of any outstanding disabilities violations and did not know about the April meeting with the state Department of Education. Members Denise A. Coppa and Barry M. Martasian could not be reached for comment.

"The School Committee doesn't even know about this. They've never told us we're fighting the federal and state government over the band room," School Committee member William C. Mudge said. "The administration is intentionally hiding this from the public."

High school Principal Gerald K. Foley and Assistant Principal Paul Lombardi did not return calls Friday about the conditions in the band room.