A Moldy Conclusion

School Board Approves Plan to Tackle Potential Health Problem

For the better part of seven years, there have been complaints about mold issues —  and potentially related health problems — in the portable classrooms at Washington Elementary School on the Mesa. This week, the Santa Barbara School Board unanimously approved a plan to do something about it. However, for the parent group that essentially forced the board’s initial tackling of the topic last fall, the action adopted Tuesday night isn’t quite good enough.

Hired by the district to investigate the situation at Washington, the Panacea Group, a certified industrial hygienist firm, spent two days in March at the elementary school campus testing a variety of portable and permanent classrooms for air quality and mold and fungus. Discovering everything from water-stained ceiling tiles and visible and invisible mold spots to elevated levels of carbon dioxide and faulty HVAC systems, the folks from Panacea painted a picture of Washington during their presentation on Tuesday night that was damning but not, at least according to them, necessarily dangerous. As one of their representatives, Mark Katchen, told the board, “Overall, we felt the ventilation systems were underperforming, but it is not what would typically be a major health issue.” Katchen, though, did add that the situation they observed could be problematic for “folks who are sensitive to mold.”

The plan proposed by Panacea, and ultimately adopted by the board (in fact certain parts of it are already underway according to district officials), calls for, among other things, the following: the removal of all impacted building materials (e.g., exterior siding, ceiling tiles, insulation, etc.), the fixing of all roof leaks, and the formal investigation by an HVAC contractor into why exactly the various venting systems at the school are malfunctioning and then, if needed, the eventual replacement of the various systems.

Unfortunately, according to David Hetyonk, the district’s facilities director, such remediation has the potential to stretch out all the way to next summer due to various permitting and construction constraints — a timeline that is unacceptable to the folks from Parents for Excellence in Public School (PEPS), the parent group that sprang to action after a school librarian became ill last fall from what was widely believed to be a health issue related to mold and/or air quality in her classroom. As PEPS spokesperson Dr. David Shapiro said on Tuesday, “We think it is absurd to wait a year. It doesn’t make financial sense [because of potential lawsuits, should kids get sick], and it doesn’t make moral sense.”

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