Walls To Come Down in War Against Mold

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 08 Jul 2003
Time: 14:09:22
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Walls to come down in war against mold at Coral Springs grade school
By Bill Hirschman
Education Writer
July 5, 2003
Under elegant cupolas at Riverside Elementary, Tracy Spayd's classroom walls were papered with fourth-graders' essays on Earth Day.
But behind Spayd's tackboard something silently bred like a biology project gone awry.
Microorganisms in moist pockets of the wallboard churned out mold spores.
Throughout the school, some children couldn't stop coughing from the spores' toxins, parents say. Other students, with dark circles under their eyes and runny noses, went to the nurse complaining of headaches, nausea and sore throats.
But for some, the health problems have been far worse.
Eleven months after leaving the Coral Springs school, Anthony Aliseo, 8, can finally breathe like a normal boy, his mother says.
Holding X-rays of his infected sinuses, his mother describes Anthony's two years at Riverside: swallowing more than 20 antibiotics and antihistamines, undergoing two CAT scans, 70 allergy injections. And finally, two surgeries.
"Our motto since day one has been if you can't breathe, you can't learn," Cara Aliseo said. "How many children does it take to have surgery before they do something?"
Finally, they are. This summer, a strike force of dozens of workers is invading Riverside to rip out almost nearly half its walls to try to eradicate the mold problem once and for all.
Riverside is a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong with the school district's two-decade, $92 million crusade against mold in 150 of its 236 schools. A state grand jury report in May stressed that persistent mold problems prove that waste and mismanagement still plague the school construction program. The jury stopped just short of saying mold caused the illness but did warn "there is evidence to link" them.
The most recent work comes too late for Assistant Principal Deborah Smith. Vertigo that had her grabbing furniture pushed Smith into early retirement last year.
"I'd think: I have 1,100 kids I'm responsible for and any second you might have to make life and death decisions. I lost confidence in my ability to focus." When she left, she said her symptoms subsided.
Hives and profound lethargy transformed Ann Morrison into a mold zealot. Although she reels from dizziness, the teacher has climbed into the ceiling to inspect splotches.
These are extreme examples, but they are not aberrations. Thirty percent of 306 parents surveyed this spring said their children had exhibited symptoms. For parents of kindergartners, it was more than half.
People have been sick since the $7 million school opened. In 1988. On that first day, Jan. 3, water that nurtures the mold leaked through poorly constructed roofs and walls. In 41 places. And it has been like that for 15 years.
Immediately after opening day, maintenance workers and construction company crews waged a losing battle. Workers plugged one leak. Days later, another appeared. They tried tar patches, a tanker-truck worth of caulking. Nothing
But the district didn't force the builder, Robert F. Wilson Inc., to solve the problem.
The cafeteria and 30 classrooms flooded every time it rained. Pails and wet vacs became school supplies. Rain poured through fluorescent lights in the media center. The librarians' last task each afternoon was to toss plastic tarps over bookcases against overnight storms. Principal Larry Katz played
musical chairs, shuffling ailing students and teachers to new classrooms.
"We would get up early if it rained overnight," Deborah Smith said. "The principal and I would have to be there to help the custodian mop the floors and suck up the water."
Few people made the connection between the escalating coughing and the mildew until nine years ago, when parents and staffers began comparing notes and demanded help.
Others resisted the idea -- even Smith, herself a victim.
"I would never tell a lie to parents. But I told parents for four years that the school district wouldn't allow the children to stay here if there was a health problem. And I was lying. I didn't know it," she said.
Interviews with grand jury witnesses -- educators and parents --produced glimpses of a long-running tale worthy of the Brothers Grimm.
When a wall in Smith's office was in danger of collapsing, workers exposed rusted studs and interior walls coated with "black tarry gooey stuff," Smith said.
Another evening, "black snow" spewed out of vents over staffers laboring late. As the staffers brushed debris from their clothes, workers in protective spacesuits apologized for reversing the air flow.
A cleaning crew last summer failed to encase a work area in plastic. When they pulled down the ceiling, spores exploded across the campus.
Such mold horror stories have confounded five superintendents'
administrations that have tried to eradicate the problem.
"Obviously, you can read the grand jury report and see some of our practices weren't best practices," said Jeff Moquin, district director of risk management.
Superintendent Frank Till has pledged to end a saga of half-measures. "We lost credibility because we didn't commit to doing a quality job," he said. "If they had built a quality school back in 1988, we wouldn't be looking at these issues now."
One thing that has not suffered is education. The school earned an A or B in each of the past four years of the A-Plus Accountability program.
But Principal Katz mused, "Imagine what they could have done if they had been able to concentrate just on education."
History lesson
Mold has been inescapable in Florida buildings since before Ponce de Leon built a tiki hut around the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine. It thrives in tropical climates because moisture provides a hospitable breeding ground.
Mold spores travel through the air, land in damp areas and reproduce. Not all mold is harmful, but the poisons in some spores inflame existing health problems. People's susceptibility varies; it's not unusual for one child
to have coughing fits while a dozen classmates are not affected.
Nestled behind walls and ceilings, the mold proliferates until it rots away ceiling tiles, eats at the base of cabinets, infects carpets and leaves dark greenish splotches of mildew.
Katz pointed to a new cafeteria wall. "I used to be able to push my finger against this and it would go right through."
In the mid-1980s, the school district raced to build schools to catch up with a sudden flood of thousands of children.
To save time, the district reused several architectural plans. Riverside was the second of five schools using a design by the now-defunct Miller Meier Kenyon Cooper Architects and Engineers Inc.
The glitch was simple, according to the grand jury and several critics. Before the first school, Country Isles, was finished, work began on Riverside and the others. Country Isles began to leak, and then Riverside. Only then did the staff discover crucial flaws in the plans.
Among them, the cupolas that poured light on children studying lessons also poured rainwater on them because heat and cold made the aluminum roof expand and contract. The metal pulled away from stucco that covered joints between the cupola and the main roof, leaving gaping breaches.
Some observers, such as EnHealth environmental consultant James Litrides, also blame the quality of construction by Wilson Inc., also now defunct. For instance, some windows had two-inch gaps between the frame and the wall, covered by caulking that deteriorated. When custodians pressure-washed the
buildings, water shot through the gaps every month for five years.
Over time, the district fingered several other causes, the most prominent being poorly maintained air-conditioning systems that created the moist conditions mold loves.
A 1999 internal audit found that the district's war on mold was poorly coordinated. Mold might be cleaned out of a wall, but the roof wouldn't be scheduled to be replaced until years later. Rain leaked in again and mold flourished again.
Fighting back
Wrestling the country's fifth-largest school bureaucracy was like groping through a maze, Smith said.
"I'd call and say there's a leak, and they'd say, `No, that's not leaking anymore.' And I'd say, `I'm standing in the room and the water is coming through the ceiling.' And they'd insist that it didn't leak."
Long-term solutions were undercut by having a procession of five top construction officials over the past eight years.
"It was like the nightmare that got dumped in the next guy's lap. And as it got passed down the chain over time, it got bigger and bigger and bigger," Morrison said.
Not that the district didn't have plans. In 1999, the School Board reserved $44 million to help 155 schools. It commissioned architectural studies and created timetables that didn't last.
That year, crews replaced Riverside's rusty walkway columns, a minor project kicking off $2.3 million of construction now entering its fifth year.
But the bulk of serious work was delayed, in part to combine other jobs at the same school.
Finally, in 2001, Weiss & Woolrich of Deerfield Beach began replacing Riverside's roofs, moving gutters and overhauling cupolas. The project dragged on as the district expanded the work to be done.
But the second stage in 2002, meant to solve roof problems permanently, became a crushing fiasco.
One day last summer, a crew took apart walls and ceilings in one room. But they failed to block off the area with plastic sheets, Litrides and Katz said. Spores exploded into the air- conditioning system and infected "every single building," Katz said.
Risk management director Moquin said, "Their practices on dealing with remediation weren't what we considered optimum." Henry Gembala of Weiss & Woolrich said his crews only worked in areas that the district had declared cleared and clean of mold.
Forty district maintenance workers spent every day and into the night washing walls and countertops, cleaning the media center's 1,800 volumes and rinsing every Lego block.
District officials only gave the go-ahead for students to return the weekend before classes began. But the all-clear was not a clean bill of health. "We're not saying it's safe," Moquin recalled, "just that the air quality is equivalent or better than outdoor air."
Officials thought the problem was over: The leaks were stopped. The mold was contained and mostly eradicated.
The show goes on, but it wasn't over because the leaks persisted.
"We still had 12 to 14, then we got it down to six or seven," Katz said. Even last month, a leak developed in a kindergarten classroom where penicillin grew.
Embarrassed and angry, Till pledged to hunt down the problem. Although consultants said air-quality testing can be unreliable, a fresh round was commissioned.
The results: About 40 percent of the walls are either contaminated or produce unclear readings. So, this summer, yet another firm, Cross Environmental Services, is ripping open walls -- even those with unclear readings-- and yanking out contaminated wallboard such as that in Tracy Spayd's classroom.
Till and Moquin say they've already implemented many lessons the grand jury cited, such as not reusing architectural plans until the first school has been opened.
"If we had to do it again, what would we do differently? As a district we need to respond to these issues quicker and we need better communication with stakeholders what we're doing and why," Moquin said.
But some staffers and parents are too bruised to be optimistic. They feel betrayed by what they perceive as persistent misrepresentations and broken promises.
"They told us Aug. 15 that the building was safe, that you did not need to do wall tests. You could visually inspect [for mold]," Aliseo said.
"We pushed for air tests. They did them. They said it was OK. We could occupy the school. Five months later they do wall cavity tests and now 50 percent of the walls are going to come down."
No one contests that the district's efforts over four years have improved life on campus.
Near the end of the semester, media specialist Monica Nocerini, a frustrated veteran of the entire debacle, was quietly savoring a library free of moldy books and roof leaks.
And yet, when a drenching squall woke her about 5 a.m. one morning, she automatically worried whether she had covered her bookcases with plastic sheets.
Force of habit.
Bill Hirschman can be reached at bhirschman@sun-sentinel.com or
Copyright 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel


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