Instead of school buses, construction vehicles filled the parking lot at Mother Teresa Academy on the first day of class Monday at the independent school on Route 146, as contractors rushed to complete renovations required by the town so that the academy could open for the school year.
About 50 pre-kindergarten through second-grade students had to spend the morning at the principal’s home in Clifton Park, a gathering that school officials were calling a “play date” to comply with potential legal issues that prevent students from meeting in a private residence.
Before the building can receive a certificate of occupancy from the town, major fire safety and handicapped accessibility requirements must be met, and the building must have sewer and water service. As many as 10 construction crew members worked in the building Monday, doing everything from finishing the front stairs to putting up wallboard and installing sinks and toilets.
“We’re working around the clock, and we’re thinking it will be done and ready for occupancy in two weeks,” Hank Maddalone, owner of Maddalone Associates Construction, said. “We’re staying in touch with the town daily. This has been a challenge, but it’s like any other business; it’s up and down.”
Hank Maddalone is also a volunteer for the academy and his wife Joyce is the school’s founder.
The work has been stalled by permit delays that town building department directors said were caused by incomplete plans submitted throughout the summer by school officials. The independent school is in a two-story building formerly used for a pediatric medical practice. School organizers said the building, built in 1980, has not been upgraded since that time.
Founders of the school, previously located in cramped quarters inside the United Methodist Church on Old Route 46 in Clifton Park, took over the medical building on May 23. A building permit posted in the window of the school Monday allowing work to proceed was dated Sept. 5. Hank Maddalone had said in May that he hoped the work would be completed in six to eight weeks.
Joyce Maddalone said the town processed the renovation applications too slowly for any real work to begin over the summer.
“We submitted plans in May, and it took [the town] until June to get back to us; we kept calling and calling,” Joyce Maddalone said. “They knew we had a deadline of September to get these children in school but they didn’t work with us.”
Steven Myers, director of the town’s Building Department, said the town reviewed plans as they were submitted and issued letters of deficiency, which indicate incomplete plans, in early June, again in late June, and as recently as Aug. 23.
“Because they can’t submit complete plans doesn’t mean we’re holding them up,” Myers said. “Especially where children are concerned, they have to be held accountable to the codes. We’ve bent over backwards to work with them.”
The children spent a few hours Monday at the home of school Principal Michelle Emerzian of Clifton Park, but Joyce Maddalone said she was still not sure where the children would be sent today.
“I’m making calls to area churches and even hotels to see if they have space available,” Maddalone said. “We can’t tell parents there’s no school. I’m e-mailing them every few hours to keep them updated. Their concerns are what’s most important to us.”
Tuition for students at the academy is $3,500 per year.
According to the state Education Department, nonpublic schools are not bound by all of the requirements that apply to public schools. But certain state laws do apply, including a requirement that non-public elementary or secondary schools enrolling 25 or more students file a fire inspection report with the state, and that such schools attended by six or more pupils meet certain safety standards to prevent fire, health, or other safety hazards.
State Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said since the academy is a nonpublic school, the state has no jurisdiction over where classes are held.
“This wouldn’t be an issue for us to determine,” Burman said. “If there were concerns about fire safety or overcrowding, we would look at that, but as far as where they meet, that would be up to the town to look into.”
Myers said school officials had not notified the town of their decision to have children meet at the principal’s home, but that when he found out, he visited Emerzian’s home late Monday afternoon to tell her private residences cannot be used for business purposes without permission.
“There were at least a dozen cars parked on both sides of the road there, and the neighbors have complained,” Myers said. “It could lead to more trouble if it continues.”
Last week, school organizers were considering putting up large tents on the property outside the building and holding classes outdoors, a move Myers said was also not a permitted use of the space.
Founded two years ago with what organizers described as an emphasis on Christian values and teachings. The Mother Teresa Academy originally had 19 children enrolled in pre-kindergarten through first-grade. Last spring, school directors said they hoped to enroll as many as 120 pupils in another year’s time.
An independent religious school, the academy is not affiliated with the Albany County Roman Catholic Diocese or any other church or religious group, State education laws do require that certain education standards must be met by independent schools as students move up from grade to grade.
Other work planned for the school building includes adding a cafeteria, gymnasium, chapel and a fenced-in outdoor playground.
Academy directors signed a five-year lease with Dr. Connie Glasgow for the building, which Glasgow vacated three years ago. Joyce Maddalone said Glasgow made financial arrangements with them to get the renovations done, and various fundraisers will take place such as a 5K run, golf tournament and spaghetti dinners to help pay off the loan.