By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — The cost of wiping the mold infestation from the Guilmette School jumped to $7.5 million last night when city councilors voted to borrow another $1 million to finish the work after an hour of questioning that focused on whether the mold is gone for good.
That concern re-emerged last week when another outbreak of mold was discovered in a first-grade classroom, sickening a teacher, causing the relocation of 21 students and prompting a cleanup costing as much as $10,000.
“This matter has been going on for a while, so we’re a little concerned (and) not sure if there’s mold left,” Councilor Daniel Rivera said as the hour-long session began. “So my first question is, where are we with the mold? Will we be spending money today and then go back and tear things apart again?”
“We don’t know whether it’s pervasive throughout the school,” city Budget Director Mark Ianello responded. “Chris (Merlino, the school department’s director of facilities) does not believe it is.”
The hygienist who tested the classroom for the new mold outbreak last week concluded that the mold came from a science project and was not connected to the widespread infestation that shut the entire elementary and middle school for most of the 2010-11 school year, forcing all 1,100 students and 100 staff to relocate to other buildings around the city.
The hygienist, Environmental Sampling and Testing Services of Ashburnham, Mass., retested the classroom Monday after it was sanitized over the weekend. Students will be returned to the classroom if the results, which are expected this week, come back clean.
Frank McLaughlin, the president of the union that represents the city’s public school teachers, said the state Department of Health will return to Guilmette on Tuesday to test the entire building. Anne Roach, a spokeswoman for the department, responded to a request to confirm the new inspection with an email saying only that she had no updates.
Last night’s vote to borrow the added $1 million to rebuild Guilmette’s interior following the demolition needed to get at the mold was required because the council initially authorized just $2.5 million for the work, $900,000 short of the one bid that came in last week.
At Ianello’s request, the council voted to borrow $1 million, including $100,000 for contingencies.
Already, the city and school department have spent or encumbered $4 million for the work, so last night’s vote pushed spending on the mold eradication and reconstruction to $7.5 million.
The infestation has been traced to the faulty insulation of the school’s air conditioning pipes, which exposed them to summer heat and allowed for condensation. The air conditioning system has not been turned on in two years and won’t be anytime soon, which means Guilmette’s summer school students will be moved to the Bruce School in June, for the third year in a row.
The city is suing Peabody Construction, the general contractor that built Guilmette a decade ago, to recover the cost of the eradication and reconstruction, an effort that drew more scrutiny from the councilors last night.
City Attorney Charles Boddy provided an upbeat assessment of the city’s likelihood of winning the suit, but estimated it could take a year and a half to resolve.
“We think things are moving very well and very favorably,” Boddy said about the suit. “The only thing we know is that the city is not responsible (for the mold infestation). Someone is.”
Only Councilor Rivera voted against borrowing the added $1 million. He cited the impact on the city’s debt and said the budget could be trimmed if the contractor were not required to complete the work by summer’s end.
“If we don’t get any money back — zero — we own that debt,” Rivera said. “Moody’s (Investors Services, which rates the city’s debt) won’t like it if we’re leveraged to the hilt and we can barely breathe.”
“We have no choice,” said Councilor Marc Laplante. “That’s unfortunate, but we have to go through with this.”
A last question came from Councilor Roger Twomey, who asked why the project drew so little interest from contractors.
“Thirty-five picked up bid specifications, including subcontractors,” Twomey said. “One returned (with a bid). Is that normal?”
“I don’t know what’s normal at this school, unfortunately,” Boddy responded.