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Officials Press Lowell School Leaders on Rodent Woes

November 8, 2018

LOWELL -- The rodent problem at Lowell High School is getting worse, not better, according to Board of Health Enforcement Agent Shawn Machado.

That message kicked off a tense, wide-ranging Board of Health meeting attended by Acting Superintendent of Schools Jeannine Durkin and City Manager Eileen Donoghue. The conversation centered on the board’s concern regarding school building conditions and touched upon pest-control contracts, leaky roofs and carbon-dioxide levels.

“The mice and rodent droppings are still awful,” said Machado, who passed around colored photos to members of the board Wednesday night.

“What’s happening isn’t working,” he said.

Durkin said the district has asked the contracted provider, Banner Pest Control, to provide more thorough reports and visit during the day.

“I’m anticipating that the contractor will be out there first thing tomorrow morning, if not this evening, and addressing specifically the matter at Lowell High School,” she said.

She said other schools also came forward Wednesday to report related issues. According to Machado, Robinson Elementary School previously had rodent issues, but was found to be in compliance during a recent inspection.

Starting in August the district changed pest control companies and entered into a contract with Banner Pest Control, the lowest bidder.

Durkin said she spoke to District Operations and Maintenance Director Rick Underwood about the reasons for the change and was informed that last year Lowell High School experienced issues with rodents. The once-a-month treatment was not working so the district requested bids for a twice-a-month treatment, she said.

Durkin and Donoghue said they may reconsider the contract with Banner if the problem persists.

“We’d like to give the contractor an opportunity to rectify this, but it really has to be immediately,” Durkin said.

Rick Kelly, a representative from Banner Pest Control, said afterward the company is working to address the issue.

“We’re aware of the issues and we’re quickly working toward a solution,” Kelly said.

Board of Health Chair Jo-Ann Keegan mentioned the district’s breakfast program where students eat in the classrooms. This may be allowing the problem to spread beyond the cafeteria, she said.

Kristen Schultz -- a Lowell High School teacher and vice-president of United Teachers of Lowell -- said after the meeting she was unsatisfied with the responses she heard on this and other issues.

She said last year teachers sometimes found mouse droppings on their desks or saw mice while classes were in session.

“I felt that we didn’t really have any answers,” she said. “No timelines were given and no real answers were given.”

Members of the Board of Health pressed Durkin and Donoghue on several issues, including the way the meeting was set up.

“Why is it getting to the point where we really had to send you that letter to get attention on something that these guys are bringing to us on a regular basis?” Board of Health member William Galvin III said.

The letter he refers to was sent by the Board of Health to Durkin, Donoghue and others last month. It describes “critical” sanitary code violations, rodent droppings and leaky roofs as well as unsuccessful attempts to bring in other school or city department heads to Board of Health meetings.

Though the board said the letter was written Oct. 9, Durkin and Donoghue said they were not aware of the letter until last Friday.

Galvin asked how to prevent the situation “from getting this far in the future.”

“If somebody could call me that would be the best start,” Durkin said.

The board also raised concerns about ongoing roof leaks at the high school.

“We were supposed to be done before the winter started,” Galvin said.

Donoghue said the city has signed two contracts for the roof that would pay for about $1 million in masonry work and a $2.9 million roof project. She said she does not have a timeline for the completion of this work. It’s unclear how much can be reused when the full high school renovation begins, though they will make efforts to preserve the investment, she said.

“Kids have to go to school and they’re going to be in this school for four, five years,” Donoghue said.

The Board of Health also pressed administrators on progress made to address the report released by the state Department of Public Health last year indicating relatively high carbon dioxide levels in the high school.

Deputy Commissioner of Lands and Buildings James Green said air circulation systems have been replaced in all but two areas and the state will be invited back once this is complete. Donoghue said she could not provide an exact time frame for this without first speaking to her team.

Keegan said moldy, dirty carpeting was also recommended to be replaced in this report. It has not been replaced at this time, according to officials.

This week’s meeting comes over a year after the Board of Health voted to recommend the temporary closure of Lowell High School for repairs. The vote occurred weeks before a scheduled meeting to decide the location of the high school.

Donoghue said her administration has been addressing years of deferred maintenance through a variety of efforts, including creating priority lists and preparing to apply for funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

“We have had an all hands on deck effort,” she said.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins

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