CHS facilities issues spur health concerns, complaints

There’s no doubt about it, the administration at Claremont High School is faced with aging facilities and a limited budget.

“All of the buildings are old,” said Kevin Ward, assistant superintendent of human resources and compliance officer for the Claremont Unified School District. “What happens in tight economic times is you end up taking care of emergency issues, but there’s not a lot of preventative improvement.”

At least one faculty member feels the deferred maintenance poses a risk to CHS students and staff. Earlier this month, the teacher, who has asked that his name be withheld, filed the second of 2 Williams Complaints requesting that CUSD investigate questionable conditions on campus.

The Williams Complaint process provides a uniform procedure for staff and students in districts across the state to address possible unsafe facility conditions, among other issues. The complainant also filed 2 complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the results of which are pending.

The teacher’s first Williams Complaint, filed on February 29, 2012, asked that 700 quad classrooms 705 through 709 and surrounding buildings like the CHS library be inspected for water damage and the presence of mold.

The district responded by hiring the Riverside-based industry specialist consultants Info-Tox, who performed an asbestos inspection on April 7. Info-Tox also contracted out with AAA Lead Consultants and Inspections, Inc. of Corona to check for lead and L.Y. Environmental of Highland to look for mold, their inspections were also performed on April 7.

A few days later, on April 12, L.Y. Environmental wrote a letter to Mike Niuwlandt, president of Info-Tox, informing him that inspectors had detected the presence of “heavy fungal growth” in 2 locations. The district was made aware of the problems shortly after.

Four feet of mold growth was found in Room 705, including the strains Penicillium/Aspergillus and Stachybotriys. The instructor who filed the Williams Complaint teaches in a neighboring classroom.

Stachybotriys is often referred to as black mold, according Carl Cole, an Alta Loma-based environmental hygienist and the owner of First Choice Mold Inspection and Remediation, Inc. Mr. Cole has not inspected Claremont High School for mold, but was asked by the COURIER to shed some light on the reported strains of fungal growth.

“If you’ve got a 4-foot area of visible black mold, that’s not good. That’s the worst type of mold there is,” Mr. Cole said.

While the effects of exposure vary, he explained, common symptoms experienced by those adversely affected by black mold mimic symptoms of a cold, such as a runny nose and coughing.

Just outside of Room 705, 40 feet of the Alternaria species was found growing on the plywood ceiling of an overhang. The district was advised to clean the overhang as soon as possible, at a time when school was not in session. L.Y. Environmental recommended mitigation should be undertaken by workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), such as suits with masks and hoods.

Alternaria can exacerbate asthma, and is “a common contaminant of water-damaged buildings,” according to the American Mold & Restoration website. Mr. Cole said he is much less concerned with mold found growing outside of buildings, because the spores are likely to dissipate in the open air.

“I would still treat it, but I wouldn’t take an air sample. What’s the point?” he said. 


Situation gets worse

While CHS administrators made plans for the recommended cleanup, an emergency intervened in the form of a fire-suppression pipe that burst outside of Room 705 on Wednesday, April 18. The Claremont Fire Department was called to the scene, and temporarily shut down the fire-suppression system in the area.

With the quad flooded with water, CHS custodians searched for the source of the problem, using circular saws to cut into the same plywood on which the Alternaria mold had been found. The complainant, who detailed the situation in his second Williams Report, says sawdust was blowing into Room 705 through slats in the room’s old cantilevered windows, which are not airtight.

The complainant feels students in Room 705 and the teacher—who suffers from asthma—should have been evacuated immediately. The teacher ultimately contacted Joe Tonan, Claremont Faculty Association president, who advocated for her removal.

“She complained to the principal and asked to be taken out of the room,” Mr. Tonan said. “Hours went by and she was still not taken out of the room.”

Mr. Cole agreed that cutting into Alternaria-infested plywood with bystanders around isn’t a good idea.

“If you’re working on the outside of the building, you’ll want to seal the windows because as you’re cutting, you’re making it more airborne,” he said.

That weekend, a crew came and cleaned the mold inside and outside of Room 705. Mr. Ward estimates that the district’s response to the complainant’s first complaint—from inspections to mitigation to related legal consultation fees—have totaled $100,000 thus far.

In the second complaint, the teacher questioned some of this expenditure, wondering why the district opted to perform lead and asbestos inspections unrelated to his Williams Complaint.


Big issues, limited funds

Mr. Ward said the district responded to the first Williams Complaint in a timely and thorough manner.

“[The teacher] has the right to use this venue to address concerns. We will respond to his complaints and get them done,” he said.

Mr. Ward noted the cleanup was performed within 45 days of the filing of the complaint, whereas “in some district’s it takes years.”

This summer, the district will work to address the facilities listed in the second Williams Complaint, which represent most of the campus. He estimates conservatively that it will cost the district another $100,000.

“All I’ve heard from all levels is that whatever needs to be fixed, we need to fix it. Period,” Mr. Ward said.

While the complainant is the sole author of the Williams and OSHA reports, the need for repairs and renovation on the CHS campus is widely acknowledged by staff members as well as the administration.

English teacher Allison Evans was moved to the 800 quad 6 years ago, a change she welcomed because of problems she experienced while stationed in a 700-quad room. While there, she was concerned about signs of leakage as well as a “white-colored growth on the walls,” which at that time were exposed brick.

When she complained to facilities administrators, she was told it was a calcium deposit. A colleague who teaches science, however, told her calcium would not be “growing” in the manner of the “spider-webby” pattern.

The concern experienced by Ms. Evans, who has “pretty heavy allergies and hay fever,” came to a head in 2004, when she began to feel that her “eyes weren’t working as well.”

“One day it got so bad that my eyes actually swelled shut. I couldn’t see properly. I got kind of scared and called my mom,” she related.

Ms. Evans’ mother took her to urgent care, where the doctor asked her if she’d been exposed to any mold or fungal growth. Ms. Evans answered that she thought there was mold in her classroom. The doctor prescribed some eye drops, and her issues cleared up.

Ms. Evans, who says she “definitely felt bad” while located in the 700-quad classroom, sees the dampness as a problem with the building’s design.

“It kind of banks down from the street, like a little hill. As the sun rises in east and crosses in sky, the sun never gets into that grassy area where the classrooms [are located],” she said. “There’s definitely a moisture problem that has been there.”

In 2010, voters rejected a $95 million bond measure aimed at updating district facilities. An earlier bond measure, Measure Y, authorizing $48,910,000 in general obligation bonds to pay for repairing and rehabilitating school facilities, was passed in 2000. Many who opposed the bill said they did so because the first bond didn’t yield sufficient improvement.

Part of the problem is that the cost of planned repairs escalated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when building materials rose precipitously, according to Mr. Ward and Mr. Tonan.

The district may need to work hard to sell voters on another school bond. But with the budget as it is, many staffers and administrators feel another successful bond measure may be needed to infuse the district with the cash it needs to fix all of the problems.

“Our staff is very concerned about providing the best for all students. We’re very cognizant of the limited means we have to do that, and Claremont does a good job of addressing that,” Mr. Ward. “The frustration comes from the fact that we can’t do it all. We really think our children deserve state-of-the-art new buildings.”


Ongoing concerns continue

Mr. Ward will spend much of the summer negotiating the new Williams Complaint. The response to the OSHA complaints—something that usually takes 4 to 6 months—will arrive sometime in the upcoming school year.

In the meantime, Mr. Ward will continue to address facilities issues as they come up, one at a time, with the money that can be found.

“We have leaking roofs all over the district. It’s a never-ending battle to keep up with water damage,” he said.

Along with asking that the school inspect the 400, 600, 700 and 800 quads in their entirety, the complainant’s new Williams paperwork asserts the burst pipe may well have been prevented. He asked: Why did administrators not respond to his reports (made in advance of his Williams Complaint) there was a damp and discolored ceiling tile in his room and water was dripping from the plywood in the area where the fire suppression main eventually burst?

Mr. Ward contends the district assumed the water damage was due to leaking roofs. The complaint coincided with the rainy season¸ during which time water tends to collect on the eaves of the old, flat-roofed buildings. The water situation was added to a long queue of repairs needed throughout the district. Since roofing is usually done during the summer, the district planned to address the situation at that time.

Many of the complainant’s latest Williams Complaint assertions fault administrative decisions, as opposed to budget shortfalls.

Claremont High School Principal Brett O’Connor has been “disingenuous” throughout the process, the teacher says. The fact that Mr. O’Connor ordered inspections only in the rooms specified in the teacher’s first William Complaint shows that the administrator is minimizing a dangerous problem, he said. 

The complainant also believes Mr. O’Connor has not been forthcoming enough about the situation. The principal sent an email to the students, parents and staff of Room 705 the day after the pipe burst, advising of the ongoing facilities issues.

“CUSD has been working with an independent building inspector with regards to evidence of water leakage in specific classrooms at CHS, as well as the standing water on some of our flat roofs after rainstorms,”  Mr. O’Connor’s letter states.

The letter also relates that a 4-foot area of mold had been discovered in Room 705 “above ceiling tiles and insulation, just below the roof” and that the inspector had found the “slightly elevated levels of mold spores.”

The complainant feels that the notice (which said the situation was not problematic enough to warrant quarantining the room) was insufficient, because it failed to address the mold outside of the classroom. Throughout his reports and correspondences, the complainant refers to “44 feet of mold.”

The complainant also notes that, since the classroom is used as a gathering room for a number of clubs and activities, including debate club meetings and SAT testing, the entire school community should have received the email.

Mr. O’Connor said he couldn’t comment on the assertions due to the sensitive nature of the situation.

Much of the issue has taken on a he-said-they-said tone. The complainant said he has experienced recriminations for his whistle-blowing, including a heightened level of scrutiny in the wake of his facilities complaints.

He was observed in his classroom 9 times by administration in the weeks following his initial informal notice of potential mold issue. In one week, he was observed 5 consecutive days in a row, which Mr. Tonan said is “highly unusual.”

“I think the employee has had, in the short time after he filed his Williams Complaint, an unusually high number of ‘drop-in’ observations,” Mr. Tonan said.

Mr. Ward said the complainant has received no disciplinary actions, and that any observations that have taken place are unrelated to the facilities issue.

The instructor has filed 2 grievances with CUSD, the first of them filed on May 30, asserting that CHS administration has been negligent with regards to facilities and alleging that he is experiencing recriminations for his reporting. Interim CUSD Superintendent Gloria Johnston has issued a denial of the first grievance.

The faculty union has voted 19-1 to allow the complainant to appeal the denial of his grievance. Another development that could find the district in arbitration is the complainant’s additional filing of a discrimination complaint with OSHA’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.

While school is now out, the work resolving this issue at CHS has just begun.

—Sarah Torribio






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