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School board discusses safety amid gas well concerns

Denton school board members got an update Tuesday on school safety and preparedness, but some still were wary about what would happen in a gas well emergency at Guyer High School.

Although Superintendent Jamie Wilson said board members get safety updates biannually, the discussion during Tuesday's regular meeting came on the heels of a recent Denton Record-Chronicle report that revealed natural gas from a southern Denton gas well may have seeped underground and bubbled up through an abandoned water well.

Inspectors ruled out problems at gas wells that sit adjacent to the Guyer campus. However, Guyer students and teachers went to a March school board meeting to voice their concerns about the wells, saying they wanted additional monitoring and a clearer safety plan in case a leak occurs.

Bill Knight, the school district's environmental safety manager, said Tuesday he and his staff perform a safety audit on each campus and report their findings to the Texas Safe School Center. All districts are required to do this once every three years, but Denton ISD spokesman Mario Zavala said the district has done three safety audits this school year alone.

The emergency safety staff reports the results of the audits to board members in closed session meetings.

"We do some of the discussion about safety in closed session because you can't tell every single person everything you do," Wilson said. "If you give your information out to some people who want to do you some harm, then you have some issues there."

Knight said in the event of a chemical spill or a gas leak, campus administrators would get word from first responders, tell everyone to shelter in place and lock down the campus. The operations department would shut off air conditioning and heating at the campus to cut off outside air while students and staff wait for an all-clear signal from emergency personnel. 

He said if the building needed to be evacuated because of a potential explosion, students would be taken to a secure location or put on buses, which Knight said could arrive within 15 minutes. He added each campus practices different types of emergency drills at least once a month.

Board member Doug Chadwick asked about the role of district officials in monitoring the wells. Knight responded he works frequently with Rod Weatherby, the gas well inspector for the city of Denton. According to the city's website, each well within Denton's jurisdiction is inspected twice per year by city staff.

The Texas Railroad Commission also inspects gas wells periodically, but it produced no documentation in response to a Record-Chronicle open-records request to show whether the Guyer wells had been inspected within the past two years.

Guyer librarian Margarete Neale, who previously spoke about the issue in a public forum, attended Tuesday night's meeting but said she wasn't satisfied.

She said there isn't adequate signage identifying the gas wells facing the school's baseball fields. She wondered what would happen if an emergency occurred outside school hours but during sporting events on campus. She also said the city inspectors focus more on fire prevention conditions, such as paint and weed control.

"There's still a lot of concerns on campus about the wells," Neale said. "I look forward to the board addressing those in the future."

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.