Richmond Public Schools authorities are taking steps to ensure that some already-completed projects are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
After receiving inquiries about ADA compliance related to a story posted April 15 on Richmond magazine's website, the school system's ADA coordinator, Valerie Abbott-Jones, contacted Michael Chenail, president of Compliance Alliance, a local company that consults with businesses and governments trying to comply with the federal act.
The Americans with Disabilities Act ensures that public spaces and businesses provide equal or at least adequate access to all. In the case of children and parents in Richmond schools, it is supposed to ensure that those who rely on wheelchairs or crutches can make it to class and school functions like parent-teacher conferences.
Projects at both Ginter Park and Mary Scott elementary schools, "as well as others," says Chenail, were specifically mentioned by Abbott-Jones as needing a second set of eyes. She asked whether he might be available to consult on the projects to ensure their compliance.
Chenail, who uses a wheelchair, and Shawn Waters, a commercial concrete contractor from Midlothian who specializes in ADA projects, went to Ginter Park to do an independent on-site evaluation of findings from a months-long evaluation of blueprints and other documents received from the school system after a Freedom of Information Act request. (Both men were quoted in the earlier story.)
Former city School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf , local blogger John Butcher and former board candidate Jonathan Mallard examined the information, which developed from a 2006 settlement agreement requiring the system to bring its schools into compliance with the ADA, which was enacted in 1990. The projects, which began in 2008, must be completed by 2013; the entire effort is expected to cost $18.3 million, according to a 2005 study by Trice Architects.
But these observers, as well as Chenail and Scott, say that some of these projects cost more than they should and also may not meet compliance standards. They say that a $41,746 entrance ramp at Ginter Park is too steep for ADA standards.
After forwarding all requests for comment to RPS in the previous story, a spokeswoman from McDonough Bolyard Peck Inc., the Fairfax-based construction-management firm overseeing the compliance process, offered comment by e-mail on specific projects. Writes Danelle Prezioso: "Since we've been involved with RPS projects, MBP can attest to the Richmond Public Schools' commitment and diligence in defining and meeting ADA objectives."
McDonough Bolyard Peck, MBP for short, has been contracted by the district to provide construction oversight for the entire ADA-mitigation project.
In regards to the ramp, "the majority of the slopes at the Ginter Park project were found to meet either the required slope for a walkway [a 1-inch rise to 20 inches of ramp], or the required slope for a ramp (1:12), with some low areas in the asphalt that may be in excess of 1:12," Prezioso writes. "Our understanding from the architect is that the project was to be built at a 1:20 slope. We will have further discussion with the architect and contractor regarding these conditions, and verification that the architect's intent was met."
However, say Chenail and Waters, the ramp at Ginter Park runs up to a regular door (instead of an automatic door) and not a walkway, so it should have a shallower slope and end in a flat run to the door.
At Martin Luther King Middle School, the parking lot requires at least one more accessible space and signs for disabled-van parking to meet ADA standards, Butcher's documents indicate.
Prezioso writes: "Per the Trice report, the basis of the settlement in federal court, the parking at Martin Luther King Middle School is compliant, and therefore, RPS is not addressing the parking at that school as part of the ADA work. The parking project listed on RPS' website actually involved the accessible route to the parking spaces. The Trice report indicates that ‘a curb cut adjacent to the accessible parking is required.' Therefore, the scope of work was limited to a curb cut and accessible route, next to existing parking."
However, according to ADA guidelines, there should be one designated handicap spot for every 25 spaces (until a parking lot exceeds 100 spaces, where the standards change), meaning that Martin Luther King's parking lot is still not in compliance.
In some cases, design costs equaled or exceeded the cost to restripe the spaces. At Blackwell Elementary annex, architects were paid $2,764 of the total $6,024 needed for the project; Broad Rock Elementary spent $2,764 of $5,145 on design. At Carver Elementary, the $3,014 in design costs exceeded by hundreds of dollars the cost to actually do the work.
ADA accessibility is a part of Universal Building Code; it is wrapped in with the federal Fair Housing Act. But it's also separate law. While the Virginia building code has special sections on accessibility, those requirements are dispersed throughout the code, and not all of the specific requirements for construction found in the ADA are included in the building code.
As a result, says Chenail, there is often a disconnect.
"One of the things I have found in my experience is a lot of architects and builders … still do not build correctly to the ADA guidelines," he says. "They build only to state code requirements."
The state building code does include charts indicating the appropriate number of accessible parking spaces based on total parking. It also includes some basic information on required maximum slope for accessibility ramps.
But the disconnect between ADA and building-code officials is one that Chenail says he's witnessed in the field as well, with building inspectors.
"Some have enough experience where they've started to include that into their repertoire, but I've talked to many who say, ‘I'm going to tell you right up front, I don't know anything about the ADA.' "
City spokesman Mike Wallace confirms that the inspectors follow the Virginia building code, and that ADA compliance is the schools' responsibility.
Prezioso says the school process is going along swiftly, with year two's projects proceeding on schedule. She writes, "There are a total of 51 projects in various stages of bidding or construction, which are scheduled to be completed by Sept. 1, 2010."
Read the April 15 story on Richmond Public Schools and ADA compliance.