EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 12, 2013

New school mold woes

Guilmette summer students will be displaced again

By Keith Eddings

---- — LAWRENCE – Summer school students and staff at the Guilmette School will be displaced again in June after the lone bid to fix its air conditioning system, which has been shut since it was found to be spreading mold two years ago, came in nearly $900,000 over what was budgeted.

Chris Markuns, a spokesman for Superintendent/Receiver Jeff Riley, said that Guilmette's summer school students will be relocated to the Bruce School while the city decides how or whether to go forward with the work at Guilmette.

As that process was beginning last week, state health officials delivered what could be more bad news for Guilmette. Anne Roach, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health, said the department has received renewed complaints about Guilmette's air quality and will conduct another round of tests.

“Many staff have stated that they have suffered from chronic, recurring symptoms such as coughing, bronchitis, sinus infections, asthma symptoms, swollen glands and unexplained tiredness and burning under the eyelids,” said a complaint filed last month with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which the agency forwarded it to the state Health Department. “Approximately 50 to 60 staff members could be affected.”

OSHA did not release the names of the people who filed the complaints.

Student attendance at Guilmette nudged up this school year compared to last, while staff attendance dropped, according to data supplied by the school district. Through April, attendance at the elementary school was 95 percent, compared to 94.2 percent last year. At the middle school, attendance increased to 96 percent from 95.5 percent.

Staff attendance at the elementary school dropped to 92.3 percent this year, compared to 94 percent last year. At the middle school, staff attendance dropped 1 percent, to 93 percent.

"While there has been no significant change in student/teacher attendance rates or other signs of ongoing widespread health problems, we understand the concerns of those involved based on the building's history," Markuns said. "The matter is being taken very seriously."

A hygienist hired by the school district already tested the air in a single classroom at the Guilmette following new complaints about mold, Markuns said. He said the test was not connected to the complaints sent to OSHA, of which he said school officials were unaware.

"We were recently made aware of a staff member at Guilmette Elementary School who was experiencing health problems which appear to worsen when at work. While a review found no patterns of concern at the Guilmette – no notable shifts in student or teacher attendance or increased nursing office visits for respiratory health issues – we obviously take these issues extremely seriously and hired a company to conduct air quality tests on the room in question," Markuns said in an email statement Friday.

"Results showed an elevated level of commonly found mold (aspergillus/peneciliem), with particularly high levels in a jar being used for a science experiment that testers suspect is the source of the issue. The experiment has been removed and disposed of properly, and the room is being sanitized over the weekend. Additional tests will be conducted in the following days to ensure the matter has been resolved," Markuns wrote.

Frank McLaughlin, president of the union that represents Lawrence teachers, said he believes the $3.5 million spent or encumbered so far on the effort to eradicate the mold infestation hasn't done the job.

“I don't believe the mold problem has ever been fixed,” McLaughlin said. “That's my belief. I'm not a scientist. The building needs to be inspected again. If there's a mold problem, it should be addressed.”

The Guilmette elementary and middle schools were closed for nearly all of the 2010-2011 school year after mold was discovered throughout the 11-year old building. All 1,100 students and staff were moved to other buildings.

The infestation has been traced to insulation ineffectively installed over air conditioning pipes to shield them from summer heat. The heat got in, creating the condensation that allowed the mold to grow.

So far, the city and school district have spent or encumbered $3.5 million to clean up the mold and repair the interior demolition needed to get at it, and has another $581,000 in reserves for the project. Earlier this year, the City Council approved borrowing $2.5 million more to finish the work with the hope that the bids for last phase would come in under that amount.

Thirty-seven contractors picked up bidding specifications. Only one, Wes Construction Corp. of Halifax, Mass., returned a bid, which Purchasing Agent Rita Brousseau opened yesterday.

The bid was for just under $3.4 million, nearly $900,000 more than the council has agreed to borrow for the work.

Brousseau said contractors may have been scared away by the lawsuits that have arisen out of the mold infestation. The city is suing Peabody Construction, the general contractor that built Guilmette, and the company that insured Peabody's work. Peabody is suing about a dozen of its sub-contractors.

Mayor William Lantigua has asked the City Council to call a special meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. on the Guilmette bond authorization, and "that this matter be considered an Emerfency item and be voted upon at Tuesday's Special Meeting."

"Specifically, I am requesting that you amend your vote...so that we may finally proceed with the necessary repaits," Lantigua wrote.

Lantigua and his budget director, Mark Ianello, did not return phone calls Wednesday seeking to learn how they may want to go forward with the work that rem

Daniel Rivera, the chairman of the council's budget committee and a candidate for mayor, expressed concern about how the added cost of the work might add to the city's debt.

“We want to be careful about how much we're borrowing,” Rivera said. “We want to fix it. At the same time, we want to make sure we're not over-leveraging the city.”

Meanwhile, the mother of a Guilmette fourth-grader, suggested that concerns mold is growing again inside Guilmette's walls may be exaggerated.

“My child is fine,” said Juliana Kentel, a member of the school's Parent Teachers Organization. “Every other child I know is fine. It's been a quiet year for illnesses, last I heard.”