School division sinkhole repairs to cost $1.5 million

Published 11:15 pm Monday, May 16, 2022

Sinkhole problems at several schools will cost more than $1.5 million. Suffolk Public Schools division hopes to have the problem fixed by this summer. 

The division has had sinkholes appear at King’s Fork High School, Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School, John F. Kennedy Middle School and Col. Fred Cherry Middle School. 

In a memo outlining the request, Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III said “this year, we have repeatedly reported the sinkholes that have appeared at various schools across the division. We have taken steps this year to permanently repair the cause of the damage in order to ensure that we are proactively repairing our facilities.”


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Gordon said it was a safety issue on the property of those schools, and that one division employee had been injured as the result of a sinkhole at John F. Kennedy Middle. He said the latest sinkhole was found at King’s Fork High in the last 10 days. 

The division will transfer $1.1 million from its instructional budget to facilities after the School Board, at its May 12 meeting, voted 6-0, with Sherri Story abstaining, to allow for the budget transfer. 

As part of the fund transfer, it will also move $142,000 to cover salaries, benefits and materials for summer school 2021, and another $100,000 for purchased security services. 

Gordon noted that the total cost for 2021’s summer school exceeded its budget by nearly $130,000 due primarily to the absence of grant funding for elementary school, as funding for stipends for summer school teachers and workers had been paid for by the federal CARES Act. 

Also, security services for school resource officers that the city billed to the school division were just over $103,000 higher than had been budgeted, with an overall cost of $503,169 versus the $400,000 that had been budgeted. 

The money, Gordon said, is savings from vacancies the division has had in staffing throughout the year. 

“This is an unplanned expense,” said Chief Financial Officer Wendy Forsman. “You can’t plan for this kind of stuff. We don’t have emergency funds. We’re not allowed to carry forward funds, so this money has to come from somewhere.”

She said it would be done “to ensure the safety of our campuses.”

Forsman said 90% of the money being spent on sinkholes is happening at King’s Fork High School, and Gordon said they have found more than 10 of them at the four schools — one of them at the high school between the baseball and softball fields, he said, was about 20 feet long and 8 to 10 feet deep. Forsman said there is a failing in the drainage at the high school where the pipes were placed under the parking lot and through the campus — none that affect the school building itself, Gordon stressed — “and we’re having some major failures in that system with the corrugated pipe.”

“In the past, when we had small sinkholes, we would just simply fill them with dirt or gravel,” Forsman said. “That is not possible with these. We’re having places in the parking lot that have begun to collapse and we have been replacing with pipe, so we’re actually fixing the problem in all these different runs that we’re finding these sinkholes. So it is a rather expensive endeavor but it will fix the system as we move forward.”

Gordon said the drainage systems that were put in at these schools were not done properly. “Based on my construction experience, anytime a new facility is created, part of the zoning of that building is to ensure that you have proper stormwater drainage, and proper materials were used,” Gordon said. 

He said they have found piping without rocks around them and plastic pipes that were used instead of metal. He said the sinkholes at the high school have been a longstanding issue, and he wants a permanent, and not a temporary, fix to the problem. 

“In the past, we’ve used small amounts,” Gordon said. “But now when we have an entire corner of a parking lot that was six feet less than everything else, it becomes a huge safety issue.”

Board member Sherri Story asked who was responsible for the problem, and said for her, it was a matter of accountability and ensuring it doesn’t happen again with new schools on the horizon.
Board Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck said the city was responsible for inspecting and approving the infrastructure. 

Gordon, however, said he was not interested in assigning blame, as he was neither superintendent nor working in Suffolk when the circumstances that he believes contributed to the sinkhole issues took place. 

He and Brooks-Buck both said the buildings at the schools were never an issue, but rather it has been the property around them that has, in spots, been unsafe.

“Our schools aren’t in danger,” Gordon said. “But there’s areas within the campus that we’ve had to mark off. We’ve had a diver. We’ve had a hole that was actually 10 feet deep that sunk between the football field and the baseball field at King’s Fork High School.”

He said the division would not put bandaids on anything, but rather would spend whatever money needed, and that it had to fix the issues. Because the issue is not just at an older school such as John F. Kennedy, but also at a newer school such as Col. Fred Cherry Middle, the division is doing an assessment of its other schools to determine whether repairs need to be done at those places, also. 

In an interview after the meeting, Gordon said Terry Napier, director of facilities and planning, has been trying to determine who did what at the time. 

“I wasn’t going to get into that blame game,” Gordon said, “because there’s not enough evidence to say who had the last inspection. But what I do know is what the diver took pictures of and showed us. The plastic instead of metal, the pipes being put in without rock.”

Gordon said that when he learned of sinkholes at Col. Fred Cherry Middle, “it made me think that whatever was happening was, the same process was going on.” At that point, he asked Napier and his department to look deeper into what has been happening. 

Board member Heather Howell said she had residents in the Sleepy Hole Borough that she represents reach out to her concerned about taking instructional money to pay for sinkhole repairs. 

“Operating funds are operating funds,” Gordon said. “And so do we really want to risk having any of our current contractors that are fixing this problem waiting on money, charging us more, and then also having the money go into multiple fiscal years? That’s our main concern why we’re asking you to do this. 

“As you can see, Ms. Forsman has put this forth to you all in May because we’ve been paying for this for a whole year. Like literally, Mr. Napier will send us an email — ‘a new one has been discovered, $40,000, $80,000, $100,000.’ We basically have the company on-call to fix it. But because of the magnitude of the ones that we’ve just seen at King’s Fork High School, at the corner of the parking lot, we need to get this done now before this fiscal year is over.”

Gordon said he and Forsman can transfer over any amount of money as a part of the division’s operating budget “when we see fit that it fits the needs of the school division, and this is a major, major safety issue, major.”

“I have a facilities background, too, so I’m a little bit more aggressive when I’m like, we can’t keep spending this money,” Gordon said. “Let’s fix it now. … I get people thinking, ‘he’s moving instructional money.’ Well, the money’s there anyway. We’ve had these vacancies. It’s a safety piece. I used that money to do (the work). I’ve used it for bonuses too, so I’ve done some different things with the funds. 

“But that’s why I appreciated Ms. Howell’s question because I don’t know what it is where the level of scrutiny that we do is at issue. Our audits are fine, and we use the same auditors as the city. It’s just a power dynamic that really needs to stop because we’re not going to do anything that’s illegal. We always make sure we check on our processes.”