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State of the schools Parents voice concerns over persistent mold at Coleytown Middle School

August 30, 2018

WESTPORT — For two years, students have been learning in a mold-infested school with little concern from parents or the district. That changed this week.

Mold remediation efforts began at Coleytown Middle School in August 2016 and, at the time, school officials estimated the work would be complete by the end of that calendar year. Two years later, mold issues persist at the middle school, and parents are frustrated by the pace and efficacy of remediation efforts.

“We’re looking at budget numbers and estimates of remediation, but are these estimates to resolve the problem or to keep band-aiding the existing problem?,” Coleytown parent Jackie McCaffery asked the Board of Education at its Aug. 27 meeting.

High humidity and moisture levels, at one point reaching 85 percent, coupled with a failure of the school’s air circulation system, again caused mold issues to at Coleytown over the summer, Superintendent Colleen Palmer told the board.

“We don’t have systems in place to keep the humidity levels low enough in that school on a regular basis if we have a bad summer and lots of rain,” Palmer said, noting the engineering and architecture at Coleytown make the school particularly susceptible to high levels of mold growth.

“I don’t know if any of you have toured the building during the worst days, but it’s revolting. It felt like a rainforest. Eighty-five percent feels like a rainforest. You would touch surfaces and they were wet. Fabric chairs had fuzzy mold growing on them,” Coleytown Parent Teacher Association Co-President Lee Goldstein told the board. “This is a real issue. It’s a safety issue.”

The classrooms treated for mold contamination this summer totaled 34 classrooms, Westport schools Chief Financial Officer Elio Longo said, noting intense remediation efforts over the last several weeks have brought the school’s mold problems to a safe level in all parts but the auditorium, which still has surface mold on the ceiling. As of the start of the school year, the auditorium is closed to students and staff.

“We will never put any child in harms way. We won’t put a staff member in harm’s way. We would not open school tomorrow unless we thought it was a great place for our students,” Palmer said at the meeting held the night before the first day of school.

Industrial strength dehumidifiers and air scrubbers, which take every dust particle out of the air, were brought in to Coleytown to remediate the summer mold issue, Palmer said. Additionally, any material that could be cleaned at the school was, and if it couldn’t be cleaned the material was removed and replaced, she said, noting the moisture levels in the school are now down to about 40 to 50 percent.

“I don’t think the mold levels in the school are that high to be an issue for the average person,” said Westport Weston Health District Director Mark Cooper, who gave Palmer the go-ahead to open Coleytown for the first day.

There will never be zero mold in the school because mold grows wherever there is high humidity, Cooper said.

When asked whether Coleytown is safe for students who may have a mold allergy, Cooper said, “That’s like asking me if it’s safe for somebody with a peanut allergy to go to a restaurant. There are people with greater sensitivities for just about everything. ... Anybody going into school with any kind of sensitivity needs to make the school aware of that.”

The cost to date for mold remediation in fiscal year 2019 will likely approach $400,000, Longo said. Expenditures through fiscal year 2018 were approximately $704,000 and the total cost of mold remediation efforts will cross the $1 million threshold. The school’s insurance company, AIG, has agreed to pay for 94 percent of the remediation, leaving 6 percent of the cost on the school, Longo said.

“It’s frustrating how much money we have had to spend on this all the time,” Board of Education member Candice Savin said.

Fellow board member Karen Kleine concurred with Savin and said, “I’m really looking for something to fix it once and for all.”

To cover past expenses, the education board has taken money from the school carryover account but hopes the insurance money will cover the majority of mold remediation costs going forward.

Members of the public also voiced frustration about the mold and the school’s handling of the persistent issue.

“I think there needs to be a more robust monitoring program, and we really want to know what it is,” Goldstein told the board.

Board of Finance member Mike Rea had harsh words for the board. “Coleytown Middle School parents have waited too long for a resolution on this. It is absolutely unacceptable that you’re still kicking it around. ... This is not something that I see has an earmark of any type of urgency. You’re dealing with it on a piecemeal basis. You need to get to the root of the problem.”

School administration plans to conduct a comprehensive review of both Coleytown and Westport’s other schools to proactively protect against ongoing issues at school facilities, Palmer said.

“We do a lot of stop-gap measures for small things, but I think it’s time, based on the age of some of our schools, that we look at how to address this permanently,” she said.

svaughan@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1

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