Lawsuit questions Bentonville school boiler maintenance workers

Posted: January 22, 2018 at 1 a.m.

Bentonville School District administration building.

BENTONVILLE -- A Bella Vista man's lawsuit accuses the Bentonville School District of not following state law concerning the operation of boilers in its schools.

Jim Parsons' lawsuit, filed last week, contends most of the boilers in Bentonville's schools are operated by custodians who don't have the required Arkansas Department of Labor license.

What’s a Boiler?

A boiler is an enclosed vessel designed to heat water and produce energy. The water is heated until it becomes hot water or steam for various heating applications.

Source: Staff Report

Leslee Wright, the district's communications director, issued a statement denying any wrongdoing.

"Bentonville Schools operates in compliance with federal and state laws and city ordinances. We view this lawsuit as totally meritless and a continued waste of resources at the hands of Mr. Parsons," the statement read.

Wright later confirmed, however, two employees licensed to operate boilers recently left the School District. That leaves the district with six operators covering 239 low-pressure boilers, according to Denise Oxley, general counsel for the Arkansas Department of Labor. Each low-pressure boiler must be checked once every 12 hours.

Asked if six people could cover the necessary checks of 239 boilers -- a ratio of one operator for every 40 boilers -- Oxley said it's possible, "but those guys would have to work split shifts. Or they're going to have to hire someone to come in and help."

The district's aim is to get back to having eight operators, Wright said.

"We have several employees slated for that training in the near future," she said.

The Springdale School District has 14 licensed boiler operators responsible for 319 low-pressure boilers, a ratio of one operator for every 23 boilers, according to Oxley.

There's no law mandating how many licensed operators an organization must employ to oversee its boilers. The appropriate number depends on numerous factors, including how far apart the boilers are a person must check, Oxley said.

The Bentonville district last week reported to the Department of Labor on Wednesday how many licensed boiler operators it has. The department didn't issue the district any warnings about its staff being too thin or recommendations for action the district should take, Wright said.

"If they had, whatever needed to be done would have taken place that day," she said Friday.

Every boiler unit is inspected at least once annually by a licensed boiler inspector, Oxley said. The district has passed six years of boiler inspections, the latest of which occurred in November, according to Wright.

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A continuing issue

Parsons first raised the issue in 2014. He said he was assured at the time the district would take care of any problem that existed, so he backed off.

He revisited the issue this past fall, requesting various records from the district, including a list of district employees qualified to maintain boilers and a schedule showing where employees are in the training program necessary to obtain a license.

Marshall Ney, the district's attorney, responded to Parsons' request Nov. 9. The district had six licensed boiler operators and nobody engaged in a training program at the time, according to information Ney provided.

Parsons wrote in his lawsuit that improperly operated boilers can explode and "cause tragic loss of life and property."

Boiler explosions are extremely rare, though there have been a few in U.S. schools in recent years, according to news reports.

A Philadelphia School District mechanic was critically injured in January 2016 when an elementary school boiler he was working on blew up. The man died four months later as a result of his injuries. No one else was injured in the incident.

Two men were injured at a Jackson County, Ky., elementary school when a boiler they were working on exploded in November 2016.

Another boiler exploded inside a Pennsylvania Catholic school in January 2017. No one was hurt, but the building sustained damage.

Sign dispute

This is the second time in less than six months Parsons has filed a lawsuit against a district employee.

The first lawsuit, filed in September against Superintendent Debbie Jones, concerns a sign Parsons made in opposition to the millage election the district held last spring.

Parsons said he left the sign taped to a district sign in front of the Administration Building and left it alone for two or three minutes after finishing an interview with a television reporter; during that time, Jones had the sign removed and destroyed.

The sign carried Parsons' slogan, "No ticky, no washy," which he has explained is based on an "old Chinese laundry slogan" that if you don't have a ticket, you don't get your clothes washed. It was meant to convey the message Bella Vista would support the proposed millage increase if the district promised to build more schools in Bella Vista.

The 1.9-mill tax increase passed May 9 with 65 percent of voters' approval.

Parsons is asking the court to order Jones to reimburse him $76 for the sign. A trial date of March 12 has been set for the case in Benton County Circuit Judge John Scott's courtroom.

NW News on 01/22/2018