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Published: Tuesday, 11/18/2003

Gas bill dispute is culprit in canceled classes

BY SANDRA SVOBODA
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Classes are due to resume today for adult education students and three charter schools. Classes are due to resume today for adult education students and three charter schools.
LISA DUTTON / BLADE Enlarge

About 770 students at three charter schools housed in the former Macomber High School and Toledo Public Schools nearby adult education program were told through media broadcasts that their classes were canceled yesterday because of a gas leak.

But what they - and apparently some administrators who oversee the schools - weren t told is that the leak was found during a test to restore natural gas service, which had been cut off since April because of unpaid utility bills. Propane gas tanks were being used to heat the building until Friday, when inspectors visited the site.

“This comes as a total shock to me,” Tom Baker told The Blade when asked about the utility problems. He s superintendent of Lucas County Educational Service Center, the chartering agency for Alliance Academy charter school.

“That s totally news to me,” said J.T. Stout, a spokesman with the Leona Group, LLC, the East Lansing, Mich., management company for Eagle and Toledo Accelerated academies.

The Macomber Building, a former Toledo public high school at 1501 Monroe St., is owned by Luttenberger & Co., a sheet metal and roofing firm that purchased the building from Toledo Public Schools in 1998, according to the Lucas County auditor.

Alliance Academy pays $18,870 monthly for rent to Luttenberger, Mr. Baker said.

Leona Group pays monthly rent for the two schools of $16,977 and $14,000, respectively. In addition, the Leona Group pays $4,571 for maintenance services for the two schools.

“Heat is included in the rent,” Mr. Stout said.

Classes were to resume today, school officials said, after inspectors gave approval to restore natural gas service. Columbia Gas employees re-lit the gas-fired boilers last evening and cleared the system for use, said Gina Thompson, a spokesman for Columbia Gas of Ohio.

In September, the Lucas County treasurer s office filed a civil action in county Common Pleas Court for foreclosure on the Macomber Building because of more than $207,000 in unpaid property taxes, said Joe Beckler, assistant chief deputy and supervisor of real estate.

Kevin Estep, a Luttenberger co-owner, said yesterday that the building is for sale.

“It s an expensive building to operate,” Mr. Estep said, estimating the monthly natural gas bills at about $35,000 during the winter.

The cancellation of classes yesterday affected about 620 children who attend the three charter schools - the Alliance, Eagle, and Toledo Accelerated academies - and for about 150 students in Toledo Public Schools adult education program located in the neighboring Whitney Building.

Dan Burns, Toledo Public Schools chief business manager, said the district had an agreement with Luttenberger to provide utilities to the Whitney Building since both buildings have been supplied through Macomber s systems.

“We have been in negotiations for the renewal of that agreement but we did have a verbal agreement that they would continue to supply heat,” he said yesterday.

Ms. Thompson, of Columbia Gas, said there were “several circumstances” regarding the building s utilities operations that were of concern to the utility company. She declined to elaborate on why service was canceled in April.

However, Mike Jankowski, another Luttenberger owner, said his company had a dispute with Columbia about the charges on the Macomber building s meters. Luttenberger paid Columbia $95,000 Friday to resolve the outstanding balance that had led to service cancellation earlier this year, he said.

“It was an argument for quite awhile,” he said.

Ms. Thompson said Columbia employees sent to the building Friday to restore service found a leak in a gas line inside the building and inspectors had other concerns about utilities.

“They ve been using propane to supply energy to the boilers,” she said. “They have done a temporary hookup with the propane. The propane was being fed into the boiler system.”

Toledo Fire Deputy Chief John Coleman said buildings are allowed to use propane for heat. But if building owners want to change from natural gas to propane, they must inform the city, go through inspections, and receive clearance for health and safety, he said.

“They didn t go through the proper channels,” Mr. Coleman said of the Macomber owners. “Had they gone through the process, those concerns would have been addressed prior to the installation [of the propane system].”

Mr. Estep said the propane “worked very well” and cost the company about a third of what Columbia charged. He said the building owners did not get a permit because they didn t think they would be using it for much longer than the three days it was in operation.

“It was never a safety issue. We wouldn t have done it if we had any concerns,” he said.

Mr. Burns, who saw the propane system before city inspectors ordered it dismantled Friday, said the tanks were located outside the building and had attached hoses that ran through windows to the boilers.

“The heating practices were not consistent with what Toledo Public Schools would do,” he said.



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