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School lofts grounded

This June, when the curtain went down on Room 38's production of "The Hobbit," Ashland Middle School teacher Andy Burt didn't think anything other than a magical story about elves was ending.

But at Monday night's school board meeting, he was notified that his sixth-grade classroom's loft — where his students have staged plays for 12 years — would have to come down to earth too.

School officials and the district's insurance company are concerned that the lofts are dangerous. The district is worried that lawsuits could result if students are injured on the platform-like structures, which are mounted to walls in four district classrooms and often used as reading and writing spaces.

Relying on guidance from school maintenance workers, Superintendent Juli Di Chiro made the decision to remove the lofts, she said. Board members discussed the issue on Monday — and seemed to agree with Di Chiro's decision — but they did not vote on the matter.

Besides Burt's loft at Ashland Middle School, which parents helped him build, there are lofts in three John Muir School classrooms.

"We use our lofts daily and they're an integral part of our class," Burt told board members Monday. "There's not a question in my mind that it promotes creativity and imagination."

Although Burt said no one has ever been injured because of his loft, school officials say the structures are a liability problem, especially since the district's insurance company, Pace Insurance, has already recommended that the district remove the lofts.

"If we should not follow their advice and a student was injured, we think we'd be opening a pretty big door for liability," Di Chiro said.

Gary Sisk, the district's facilities coordinator, said he didn't think the lofts were structurally sound and that they didn't comply with building code requirements.

"Anything lofted off the ground, there has to be some sort of fall protection," he said.

"In all of our classrooms, the floor underneath the lofts is concrete, so there is no fall projection, so that was a concern as well."

The lofts are also inaccessible to some students with disabilities, which could set the district up for another type of lawsuit, Sisk said.

Board member Carol Davis, who is an architect, said she agreed that Burt's loft was not safe.

"I've seen it, as a parent, and gone, 'How'd they get to build this?'" she said.

"I wish there was some other type of structure or something that could be done, but they would really need to start over," Davis added.

Parker urged district officials to work out a compromise with the teachers who want to keep the lofts in their classrooms, such as Burt.

"I would just like us not to close the door on having lofts that were built according to code, so that there's that option," she said.

But the superintendent said, due to budget cuts, district maintenance workers are stretched too thin to oversee a project like that.

"The policy is there will be no lofts in the school district," she said.

The lofts will come down this summer, before students return to school, Sisk said. Some parents of John Muir students are planning to remove that school's lofts themselves and reconstruct them in their homes, he said.

Burt said he will have to rethink his classroom teaching strategy for the next school year.

"If we continue to do some theater, how will I be able to use that as a theatre?" he said. "A lot of kids were hopeful that it would still be up."

In other matters, board members elected Keith Massie as chairman of the School Board and Heidi Parker as vice chairwoman.

The board also approved changes to the elementary schools' handbooks, next school year's calendar and a Willow Wind Learning Center contracting process for that school's barn.

Contact Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.