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Mold outbreak causes school woes

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Published on: Thursday, October 31, 2013

By Holden Wilen

ROCKVILLE – Montgomery County Public Schools is reeling after a meeting last week with the County Council’s education committee to discuss a mold outbreak at Rolling Terrace Elementary School.

Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, chair of the education committee, called for the meeting after visiting the Takoma Park school to see the mold for herself.

“I did a walkthrough of the school with Principal (Jennifer) Connors,” Ervin said. “We saw the undersides of chairs with mold, pipes with mold, rugs with mold, heating and air conditioning vents with mold. It is a significant problem and there are a lot of children in that building, 800 students.”

Bridgette Kaiser, a mother of two Rolling Terrace students, said the mold is affecting the health of her fourth-grade son.

When Kaiser’s son went to school at the beginning of the fall, she said his allergies and asthma began acting up. Kaiser said she is normally able to keep her son’s health condition under control, but this time he ended up having to go to urgent care. At one point Kaiser said her son was on seven different medications.

Now that the mold is back, Kaiser said she is faced with a decision no parent should have to make.

“I am afraid of ending up in urgent care. I have to tell you, it is unfair to expect parents to choose between sending their kids to school drugged or keeping them home,” Kaiser said. “…It is obvious this band-aid plan of spot cleaning is not working. The current action plan shows resolution in 2017, and I feel that is too long for us to wait. I want to emphasize this is not only distracting for the children but our principal cannot expect to be effective in this environment and neither can our teachers.”

James Song, director for the MCPS Department of Facilities Management, said the mold outbreak occurred after Labor Day weekend. Staff went in and cleaned the school immediately, he said, and air-quality tests show the school is safe to occupy. Several factors led to the outbreak, he said, including faulty energy retention units on the school’s roof, which the school system has since repaired. Song also attributed the outbreak to “exceptional weather conditions.”

“The other fact is that this again is in direct correlation with the weather conditions that we are having,” Song said. “Usually mold is factored into the outside weather conditions that we have. Usually when the weather turns at this time into the cooling season that we are going into, the mold dissipates because there is less humidity. It is a direct dependent on that.”

County Councilman Marc Elrich did not buy Song’s excuse, asking him why mold outbreaks did not occur at other schools.

“When it rained for three days it rained for three days on the whole county near as I can tell,” Elrich said.

Song responded by saying the problem is not only at Rolling Terrace: “Rolling Terrace is not just the only school that is having mold, and it is not just the rain I was referencing to.”

“Not every school has 26-year-old mechanical systems that have been band-aided year after year,” Song said. “We are fighting uphill against the moisture in the air and this is not the case in every school.”

Song noted that the school system has a 10-year backlog for replacing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, costing a total of $163.7 million.

According to the legislative packet provided to the education committee, replacement for the system at Rolling Terrace is not slated to take place until 2016-2017.

The school system does set priorities for which systems should be replaced, Song said, but it does not matter when the backlog is so large.

“No matter how much we can prioritize I do not know what system is going to fail tomorrow,” Song said.

Elrich pointed out that earlier in the education committee’s session, MCPS’ year-end financial report showed a $25.6 million surplus and the school system has $22.1 million in unappropriated money.

“There is nothing to stop you all from using the surplus to fix a problem,” Elrich said. “The rationale behind you keeping your surpluses instead of diverting it to the county is so that you could handle unexpected needs, and it sounds to me like you have an unexpected need.”

Council Vice President Craig Rice said he worked on bills in 2008 in the Maryland General Assembly during his time as a state delegate to fix air quality problems in schools, but school systems fought the bills because they thought the expense would be too large.

“Now here we are in 2013 with the same problem being repeated again,” Rice said. “My question is, have we learned from the mistakes we made? Have we changed our design in terms of how we build our buildings and systems to make adjustments for what we have learned via the problems we experienced 5-6 years ago? What is our future plan? Why is it taking us to long to teach our staff how to appropriately set temperatures and handle rainy days? If you detect a little bit of me being upset, I am. It should not take five years for us to solve a problem like this. The reality is it just keeps bouncing around.”

Song responded by saying the school system has changed its design for buildings, and the new buildings do not have mold problems. The problem, he said, is the backlog for replacing heating and air conditioning systems.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Ervin asked MCPS to expedite the replacement of the HVAC unit at Rolling Terrace and to have the school system work closely with the county’s Department of Health and Human Services to help students.

Rice said MCPS needs to continue monitoring the school and do more to monitor other schools so the council is aware of problems beforehand.

“We need to be focused on fixing the problem but we also need to make sure we are identifying the problem as well,” Rice said. “I am sure this mother (Kaiser) would have liked to have known about issues beforehand so she could have been prepared for it instead of treating her child at an emergency facility.”

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