Mold seeps into Portland school bond debate

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PORTLAND — Responding to reports of mold found at Longfellow and Reiche elementary in recent weeks, Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said his top priority is the health and safety of students and staff.

Botana on Monday said the School Department has followed all of the “standard operating protocols for dealing with these types of reports,” including informing parents and taking steps to remediate the problem.

However, Joanna Frankel, co-chairwoman of the parent-teacher organization at Reiche, said the mold issue “is just another symptom of a broken, worn-out old building that is in desperate need of renovation.”

Longfellow and Reiche are part of Question 3, the $64.2 million bond on the Nov. 7 city ballot, that asks voters to approve substantial renovations and updates at four of the city’s elementary schools.

The other two schools included in the bond are Lyseth and Presumpscot.

There is another ballot measure, though, that calls for spending $31.6 million on just Lyseth and Presumpscot, while relying on state funds for fixes at Longfellow and Reiche.

For Frankel and Emily Figdor, spokeswoman for Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, which is advocating on behalf of the four-school bond, the mold shows just how much infrastructure work is needed at both of the schools.

But Dory Richards Waxman, spokeswoman for Better Schools, Better Deal, which is pushing for the $31 million two-school bond, argued Tuesday that”We need new schools at Reiche and Longfellow, not just Band-Aids.”

“Only Question 4 (the smaller bond) allows us to receive state funding in 2018 for two new schools. And it’s half the cost of the four-school repair bond,” she said.

Waxman also expressed confidence the School Department is putting “the safely of our kids first. I am not seeing any evidence to suggest their response to these recent mold problems” is inadequate in any way.

Without getting into whether the mold is a sign of age and neglect at Longfellow and Reiche, Botana said the concern is “some forms of mold can be a health hazard.”

“The mold at Reiche was found in late September while responding to a staff report of a musty odor,” Botana said. “At Longfellow, the suspected mold was found after Protect our Neighborhood Schools posted a picture online of a discolored section of interior ceiling.

“Anytime something like this is found, we conduct appropriate tests to determine what we were dealing with and then (take) appropriate steps to communicate and remediate,” he said.

Botana said there is no risk to the health of students or staff at Reiche because “there is no airborne mold.”

At Longfellow, Botana said, “We don’t know for sure because we’ve not received our tests back, but the area appears to be well contained (and) not exposed.”

In a letter sent home to Longfellow parents, the superintendent said “Our roofing contractor assessed the roof structure and took corrective actions to prevent additional water that would lead to cracking that would release mold.

“Assuming that air quality tests reveal that there is no airborne mold we are confident that we can isolate and remediate this situation with minimum disruption.”

And, in a letter sent out late last week about the issue at Reiche, Botana said “We identified the cause of the mold as a leaking water pipe in (a) trench (around the school). We have identified a vendor for remediation in the trench and the project will be completed in short order.

“The remediation will involve the replacement of the pipe, the removal of sections of pipe impacted by mold, replacement of flooring in the (affected) office and the installation of sensing technology that will let us identify any future occurrence.”

But both Figdor and Frankel expressed concern that a document prepared by Environmental Safety & Hygiene Associates on Oct. 6 describes the mold at Reiche as “extensive.”

And, Figdor said, on Oct. 5 an office at Reiche was “sealed by workers in hazmat suits after a test found airborne mold levels 68 times the recommended limit.”

In addition, Figdor said, “Other access points to the trench, located in (a) kindergarten room and the cafeteria, were sealed off, as well. Air quality tests conducted by the city at those locations were not elevated, but teachers and staff reported musty odors starting at the beginning of the school year.”

While Figdor said she is “confident that (the School Department) is doing everything necessary to minimize the potential health risks at both Longfellow and Reiche, kids are especially vulnerable to health impacts from mold,”

She also said “Reiche has poor air circulation, which contributes to the potential problem. As a parent (with two children at Reiche) I want to know what’s going on inside the school, including when the news is not good.”

Frankel is also satisfied with the school department’s response, but said, “I have specific concerns regarding my own child, who has both mold allergies and asthma.”

“Mold can cause physical symptoms like coughing and wheezing and can lead to missed days of school,” she added. “It is not OK for a school building, where students and staff spend at least seven hours a day, to be unsafe or potentially make them sick.”

Frankel also agreed with Figdor, who said the “mold at Reiche is a direct result of the city’s failed, two-decade long strategy of relying exclusively on state funding to fix our schools, which has meant completely neglecting our school buildings.”

“After 20 long years of waiting to fix these schools, it’s come down to whether we value education as a community or not,” Figdor added. “It’s time to pass Question 3 to finally fix all four schools.”

“Enough is enough. The kids, teachers and community deserve safe schools fit for 21st century learning.”

For Frankel there’s also no doubt that the finding of mold means residents should support the four-school bond.

“There were already countless other reasons to support the (measure). This is just the next item to add to that long list.”

“We are talking about issues that run the gamut from safety concerns to lack of ADA compliance to inadequate space to students just not having access to schools that meet 21st century standards for learning,” Frankel said.

Waxman, however, said with state construction funds, the city could address all those concerns at half the cost to taxpayers.

“A lot has changed this week,” she added, including that the city Finance Department “has clarified that the construction time-line for both approaches is eight years.”

In addition, she said, City Councilor Nick Mavodones has also pledged to support a second local bond if the state doesn’t come through with funding for Longfellow and Reiche during the current fiscal year.

“These two assurances eliminate any remaining reasons to borrow $64 million to only repair four schools,” Waxman said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

After mold was found at Reiche Elementary School in Portland, a school office was sealed off along with vents leading to a kindergarten classroom and the cafeteria.