Parents, district face off over mold issues

Posted on: Thu, 07/15/2004 - 7:00am
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Joined: 10/05/2002 - 09:00

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Tension is tightening between Spring-Ford Area School District administrators and parents of children who have allegedly become ill as a result of mold in SFASD schools.

When a Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas judge issued a ruling restricting parents' access to the schools in order to conduct testing at their own expense, parents reacted by conducting two protests at two different school buildings in the district.
"We are protesting the judge's decision and (SFASD Superintendent) Dr. Genevieve Coale's decision to not let us in the school to provide our own testing free of charge," said Barbara Hagan, one of the coordinators of the protests, and parent of two children who allegedly suffered aggravated allergies while attending the Intermediate School.
"Everybody gets a second opinion when it comes to their health," said Hagan. "But the Spring-Ford Area School District will not allow a second opinion at no cost to them."
Hagan said her children have no problems when they are away from school for any extended time.
In a statement to the Reporter, Coale wrote, "The district has long been proactive in taking steps to ensure that the air in all schools and offices meet standards set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers, Inc. with regard to ventilation, temperature, relative humidity and carbon monoxide."
Coale went on to say that despite these standards, there are no ASHRAE standards regarding fungal contamination, rather there are guidelines.
If there is anything the protesters and the district agree on, it is the need for standards.
"That's the whole problem," said Hagan. "A bill put out in 2002 is still awaiting approval."
Rep. Mary Ann Dailey, who co-sponsored legislation to establish air quality standards for schools was unavailable for comment in time for publication.
In Hagan's case, her child was offered an Act 504 plan by the district, a program that gives accommodations to students who have physical, mental or health impairments to afford them equal opportunity. Hagan denied the plan though, because she said she was not assured that the room her child was moving into was any better than the one he was leaving.
"He might have been coming out of the pot and into the fire," she said.
In response to litigation brought against the district by a concerned parent, SFASD employed an independent security agency, Executive Protective Services, to guard the Middle and Intermediate schools. EPS had been guarding the Intermediate School around the clock since June 17.
"We're here to make sure people don't wander into the school grounds," said Brian Galie, a security officer and a corporate member with EPS. "There is a lot of construction."
The security is constant, although the district said Galie is mistaken. Construction is not the only the reason, according to the district, for round-the-clock surveillance.
"When litigation is involved, it is important for the district to be careful about who is allowed access to the district buildings," Coale said in the written statement. "We lament having to spend the funds for these guards, which, through July 13, has amounted to $34,240, but given the legal circumstances, it is the only reasonable and prudent action the district can take."
The district also attributed the parents' protests as a second need for security.
"Second, the guards monitored the protests that took place at both the Middle and the Intermediate schools, ensuring the safety of those participating, community members, personnel and the buildings at which the protests occurred," Coale said in a written statement to the Reporter. "Given the litigation and the public nature of the event, failing to provide for security would have been irresponsible."
However, several parents said they heard a security agent say that guarding the "relocatable classrooms" behind the Intermediate School was too easy.
"This is the cakiest job I've ever had," the agent allegedly said in front of parents. "I'm protecting nothing from soccer moms."
The 24-hour-a-day security is coming at a considerable cost - about $53 an hour - to taxpayers, many of whom resent the fact that the security is intended to keep them out of the buildings.
"They're protecting the trailers (where there is allegedly evidence of mold)," Polly Moore Keyser, a parent of a student in the school district, said. "And I, as a taxpayer, am paying for it. It's a taxpayer's nightmare."
Hagan said thorough testing, including wall-boring tests in the relocatable classrooms would provide the proof of unsafe mold levels the parents need.
"They are ripping these things down, and there are people standing there who would not let them do (wall boring testing)."
Coale said the security agents will remain on guard at the schools "as long as they are deemed necessary."
Taxpayers are also footing another significant bill.
According to the meeting minutes from June 21, SFASD has retained Communications Solutions Group, a Jenkintown-based public relations firm, for $36,000 for the 2004-05 school year, plus an additional hourly rate of $140 per hour, "for special event and crisis communication services."
In a November 2003 article, by The Pottstown Mercury's John Gentzel explained the need for a public relations service.
"It's not that Coale would no longer be dealing with the public or the media; the district - at 6,500 students and growing - has too much public relations work for one person to handle," the article said.
When asked why the school board approved the use of the firm, Coale said in a written statement that "the Spring-Ford Area School District determined approximately a year ago to move forward like many other school districts with a public relations firm in order for the district to communicate its programs and initiatives more effectively."
Kathy Henry - who has three children who appear to suffer from mold-related illnesses - said that, before the Court of Common Pleas ruling, the district had allowed her access to perform limited testing in Room 125 of the Intermediate School. Henry's youngest son occupied Room 125 during the 2003-04 school year.
Henry provided a "split sample," or half of the exact same sample taken by her testing agency, Indoor Air Solutions, of Pottstown, and to SFASD and its testing agency, Karl and Associates, of Mohnton.
In her written statement Coale said that the district's company's test results "do not indicate active fungal growth."
Henry said Cole is misinterpreting the results.
"What do the results say about bacteria? Yeast? Mold?" Henry asked. "Our reports indicate that, because of water intrusion, there are air quality problems."
Dave Garrison, Henry's attorney, said, "data collected by the school district and (Henry) in Room 125 shows that there was, and remains, an indoor quality problem at the Intermediate School."
Keyser said the parents aren't "out to get" the district; they are simply trying to find out what is making their children sick.
"Other kids continue to go to school and get sick, and (their parents) have no idea why," Keyser said. "We're just trying to raise public awareness and help other kids not get sick."
Coale maintains that the district does what it can.
"Indoor air quality assessment and remediation have been ongoing in the district for years," she wrote. "Since 1996, the district has spent approximately $278,000 for duct and carpet cleaning, filters, and indoor air quality testing ... In addition, the district has spent $9,360 for 39 dehumidifiers for school and office buildings."
Keyser, who is confident that she has proof the district neglected to take care of the mold problem, thereby making her daughter sick, is trying to help other parents help their children. Keyser said her daughter's medications cost thousands of dollars.
"It's just a matter of what number of us will be suing, and whether or not we'll use in a class, or in a federal or state court," Keyser said. "We're still putting the pieces together."

[This message has been edited by synthia (edited July 15, 2004).]

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