MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon Christian School is unable to use two portable classrooms it installed in July to address growing enrollment because it lacks the required permits from the city of Mount Vernon.
The lack of permits has forced the school’s staff to teach part of a student population that has doubled in two years in the school’s music room, library, art room and common room.
Superintendent Jeff Droog said the school ordered two portable classrooms — a $500,000 investment — in April, when it became clear the portables would be needed to keep up with the growth in enrollment.
He said at the time he was confident he could get the necessary permits by July 6, the date the portables were to be installed.
When Droog realized the task of putting together the permit applications would exceed his ability, he hired professional consultants with the understanding that they would have the job on the back burner because they had so much other work caused by an ongoing construction boom.
The permit applications have yet to be submitted to the city.
When July 6 arrived and without the permits, the school proceeded with installation.
Now, the Mount Vernon Development Services Department can’t ensure the portables are safe for use and can’t allow them to be used, according to city officials.
The school has experienced unprecedented growth since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, going from 275 students in the 2019-2020 school year to 550 today.
Droog attributes this in part to the school’s decision to hold in-person school throughout the 2020-21 school year when public school districts operated online only or in a hybrid — online and in person — model.
“We literally doubled basically in the course of one school year,” Droog said.
Since school started Aug. 24, the school has done its best to find space for its students, he said. Music and art teachers are without a permanent space, and have to cart their equipment from room to room.
Tighter quarters also means students will be in closer contact with each other, raising concerns about the spread of COVID-19, he said.
Droog said he understands the city is enforcing a process it’s required to follow, but believes the pandemic and the need for more space are extenuating circumstances.
“I do feel processes can’t be so rigid that we can’t do the right thing when circumstances are so abnormal,” he said.
Chris Phillips, director of the city’s Development Services Department, said the city is awaiting submission of the school’s permit applications, and will prioritize this project once it has the paperwork it needs.
“Instead of doing it as soon as practical, we will do it as soon as possible,” he said.
Phillips said the city is committed to processing these applications quickly, and with COVID-19 infection rates extremely high, he shares Droog’s concerns with being able to keep students safely distanced.
He said his department wasn’t aware the portables were installed until late July, when the city’s code enforcement officer happened to drive by the property, he said. Staff were unable to inspect the installation, which he said could create problems down the line.
Upon seeing the portables, Phillips said the city issued a stop work order, which will be lifted once the school acquires the necessary permits. How quickly his department can review and approve the permits will depend on the completeness of the application.
While there is an option for a temporary occupancy permit, this would require the school to submit the permit paperwork that verifies the buildings are safe for students to use.
“The public needs to have an understanding that these buildings are safe,” Phillips said. To date, none of the necessary documentation has been submitted.
Droog said the work required feels excessive for what the school is doing.
For instance, one aspect of the plan requires Droog document the location of every tree on a 22-acre portion of campus.
“We’re not doing anything with trees,” he said, adding the process feels “really, really arduous for what we’re trying to do.”
Phillips said things such as an updated site plan — which documents landscaping — are required of anyone seeking a permit to make improvements on their property.
“There are roles and responsibilities that go along with being a property owner,” he said. “It’s just part of doing business.”
Droog and Phillips met in June for a pre-application meeting, where they discussed the work necessary to get the permits for the portables. Phillips outlined the number of permits that would be required, and the documentation needed to get them.
Phillips said Droog was provided with information detailing what was required of him.
Droog admitted he was naïve to the permitting process, and wasn’t fully aware of the amount of work required to get the permits for the portables when he ordered them.
“I thought it would be easier,” he said. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
Considering the massive growth of the student body, the delay with consultants and the need to keep students distanced during the pandemic, he said he believes there ought to be a way this could have been resolved faster.
“I don’t know what the solution is, but I believe there could have been parts of this process that could have been done in a manner that would have gotten us in faster,” he said.
Phillips said he needs Droog to submit some portion of the permit applications before he can determine what can be done.
“There’s nothing that you’d call a workaround because there’s nothing to work off of,” he said.