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  • Writer's pictureCorey Provencal

Palm Beach County schools wage never-ending battle against mold

Thousands of indoor air quality complaints in past three years, but officials say safety programs working.

Before the start of school last year, moldy and water-stained ceiling tiles were found in two classrooms, and moldy drywall in a third room at Northmore Elementary in West Palm Beach.

The problems were fixed quickly, but the case was far from an isolated incident across the Palm Beach County School District, records show.

During the 2009-10 school year, administrators handled 977 maintenance work orders to address indoor-air quality problems ranging from “sewer odors” to high humidity to water leaks.

A Sun Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel investigation reviewed thousands of cases involving moldy classrooms, health-related complaints from teachers and students, and responses and actions by school officials. While the school district has received national recognition for a pro-active measures in addressing mold issues, some problems persist.

In Palm Beach County, reports from July 2007 to June 2010 point to a never-ending battle being waged against mold that infests classrooms, bathrooms, offices and and even school clinics. Among the findings:

Clifford O. Taylor/Kirklane Elementary in Palm Springs: A summer 2007 inspection validated years of complaints by parents and teachers about repeated flooding, roof failures and mold. The school, built in 1970, is improved now thanks to a $40.7 million modernization last year.

Olympic Heights High west of Boca Raton: Surface mold in nine classrooms was reported after school started in Aug. 2008.

Coral Sunset Elementary west of Boca Raton: In June 2009, a district carpenter was called in to remove 48-foot-long moldy cabinets from two walls in the school’s clinic.

Okeeheelee Middle in Greenacres: Surface mold in four classrooms was reported in Oct. 2009.

Independence Middle in Jupiter: In April, a staff member’s illness resulted in the discovery of “very dirty & moldy” parts of the air conditioning system for the physical education office.

Administrators insist schools are safe, and the volume of complaints is normal considering the region’s warm weather, the potential for building leaks, and the district’s inventory of 1,420 buildings and 27.2 million square-feet of facilities.

“I don’t think these issues will ever go away,” said Joseph Sanches, facilities management chief. “We live in a high-humidity area.”

A proactive approach to building maintenance — such as using environmentally friendly materials and cleaning chemicals, and proper cooling procedures — has reduced the potential for problems and the number of incidents, he said. It also helps that the district has built or replaced 141 schools since 1989.

The district wants to know if someone has a problem, and even solicits indoor air quality complaints.

“We welcome the calls,” Sanches said. “We respond to issues immediately. We would be at fault if people pointed these things out and we didn’t respond.”

Just three years ago, the district celebrated recognition for being among the best school systems in the nation at improving the air breathed by students and teachers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named the district one of five winners of a “National Model of Sustained Excellence” award for achievement in “maintaining healthy educational facilities.” That followed a similar honor from the agency in 2003.

In addition, 96 of the district’s 186 schools have received the ” Asthma-Friendly” designation from the American Lung Association in recent years.

Chris Skerlec, the district’s environmental control director, said the district has maintained these high standards even as the maintenance work orders keep coming: 3,536 in three years.

“We still end up with windows that leak and roofs that leak. We end up with cracks in buildings,” he said.

After the district had won acclaim for its approach, the School Board sought to keep it going by adopting its first Indoor Air Quality policy two years ago.

“It is the intent of the School Board that the District will consider the most current, proven technologies in the fields of health, safety and environmental sciences,” the policy states.

The district is largely on its own in setting its indoor air practices because there are no state laws governing how schools should monitor, detect and handle mold build-up and other indoor air quality issues in these buildings. School districts are not required to tell anyone about the problem — not even the local health department — despite a growing body of knowledge that mold can be especially harmful to children.

Last year, Palm Beach County schools paid $164,728 to outside contractors specialized in indoor-air quality repairs and projects. The district spent another $13,550 to hire consultants to investigate certain complaints and to oversee contractors. Still more funds went to staff salaries for technicians in Skerlec’s office, and for district maintenance crews to handle work orders.

The Florida Department of Education has acknowledged that about half of the state’s public schools are burdened with environmental issues. But it would be expensive to fix them — an estimated $70 million just to start, according to a legislative report written in 2004, the last time the state took a serious look at the issue.

Not only would repairs be pricey, Florida could be setting itself up for lawsuits if it identifies those problems, wrote the Senate analyst who compiled the report.

A national study by the University of Central Florida found that extra funding for repairs and maintenance projects alone might not solve the problem.

School districts do not want it publicized that they have mold problems.

“There is often a greater desire to hide problems than have them resolved,” wrote the UCF researchers who, in 2006, found that schools in Florida, Texas, New York and three other states had chronic problems with mold, humidity and odors.

Palm Beach County’s history with mold and classrooms dates to highly publicized problems in the 1990s.

Staff members and parents complained for years about poor air quality at 19 schools that the now-defunct W. R. Frizzell Architects designed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The air conditioners failed to remove enough moisture from the air, which led to mold and mildew. The district spent more than $50 million to replace all the systems, beginning in 1996.

Denise Robinette, a parent from Jupiter, has been a long-standing advocate to educate the public about poor indoor air quality through her HealthyLiving Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

In late 2002, she and her ex-husband sued the Palm Beach County School District, alleging that faulty maintenance of school ventilation systems made their sons sick. The case has since been settled out of court.

“Mold is a four letter word when it comes to schools,” she said. “If my kids didn’t get sick, I never would have believed the consequences of indoor air quality. These issues are real. Kids are getting illnesses they will have for the rest of their lives.”

In the past decade, more parents have spoken out about schools that seemed to make their youngsters sick.

Many times those districts did not make a concerted effort to fix problems until lawyers got involved, said South Florida attorney Scott Gelfand. He represented several Broward County students and school employees who sued that district in 2002.

The State Attorney’s Office in Broward investigated and brought its findings to a grand jury, which released a scathing report criticizing school officials not only for dragging their feet on getting rid of mold but also for having schools so poorly constructed and maintained that they constantly leaked.

Broward spent millions of dollars on repairs, but a number of statewide changes the grand jury recommended never happened.

Richard J. Shaughnessy, director of The University of Tulsa Indoor Air Program and one of America’s foremost air quality experts, said the situation might not change unless the public pushes the issue.

“It has to start,” Shaughnessy said, “with parents becoming involved and demanding that schools address these types of problems across the country.”

• John P. Lapotaire, CIEC • Certified Indoor Environmental Consultant • Microshield Environmental Services, LLC

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