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Mold problem creates capacity problem

November 17, 2018

STAMFORD — The district is looking into buying more portable classrooms for Newfield Elementary School after closing the school’s existing modular rooms due to mold.

On Tuesday, Clarence Zachery, chief fiscal and operations support officer for Stamford Public Schools, said he was going to Middletown to look at six modular classrooms previously used by another Fairfield County district.

“If they are acceptable, we have to negotiate and try and get them,” he said during a meeting of the fiscal and operations committee of the Board of Education. “We’re going to be talking to various vendors about the time frame. What’s unique about these is they have six of them which is the exact number we need for Newfield.”

The units, which include bathrooms, were built in 2015 and used within the last two years.

According to Mold Task Force member and city director of operations Mike Handler, the district is negotiating prices on the modulars and looking at their warranty, condition and needs in terms of foundation and drainage.

“The way the school is operating right now is not optimal,” Handler said. “We know we need to add more capacity to Newfield. Whatever we add permanently is not going to happen in a year.”

Outgoing Board of Education chairman David Mannis said buying already renovated portables would allow quicker access to six units. Buying new units would take longer due to a delay in the market, he said.

In the meantime, students have been relocated elsewhere within the school building with some classes in the computer lab and the auditorium, raising the concern of parents.

“My understanding is the students are all squared away in healthy spaces,” Mannis said. “How long they’re going to have to stay (depends) on which path we follow. ... The dream is these (used units) would just be purchased and moved. There’s still a process of hooking them up. That’d be true of any unit. It can’t happen overnight.”

Replacement portable classrooms have been the only option for adding capacity mentioned since the district closed the Newfield modulars in late October. At that time, school officials promised to make a recommendation to the Board of Education by Nov. 13 on a replacement solution. This was prior to the creation of the mayor’s Mold Task Force, charged with handling the mold infestation plaguing city school buildings.

Handler said the task force is focused immediately on remediating occupied rooms at the school and improving the overall quality of the city’s buildings. There have been discussions at the district level about what to do regarding the 30 portables across all city schools, all of which are beyond their useful life, but no long-term solutions have been reached.

“With Newfield, our first order of business is to remediate whatever issues are inside the building and then working with portables for extra capacity in the meantime,” Handler said. “Either way, the district is looking at buying portables because we’re going to need portables to replace the ones we have. We’re going to try and acquire six portables as fast as we can if Newfield is the place that needs them.”

Newfield students moved out of the portables in late September but school officials did not officially close the structures until a month later, after parents complained at an Oct. 23 Board of Education meeting about the conditions at the school.

At the meeting, Newfield parents criticized the board for not moving students and staff sooner after mold was reported. A report from the district from Oct. 1 showed mold was found in the walls of the maintenance garage under two of the portable classrooms, and in some of the 400-block classrooms at Newfield as early as September 18. One parent said she’d seen mold at the school as early as 2015.

“I walked in the first day of school and I was like ‘your classroom stinks,’” said Aimee Elsner who has two sons, one of whom is still at Newfield. “We got the carpets on and that was a band aid. Clearly, there was more going on there. ... The portables don’t need to be redone. They need to be demolished. They shouldn’t have even lasted this long.”

According to a report from the district’s mold remediation firm, Hygenix, a site inspection on Sept. 18 found a “musty” odor upon entering the portable classrooms. Inspector Robert Brown said the decision to relocate students and staff from the classrooms was justified due to water leaks, draining issues and moisture accumulation under the building, mold in the maintenance garage and elevated mold counts in the classrooms.

Brown noted the roof drainage was dispelling water underneath the temporary structures. The relative humidity in the classrooms was 61-62.2 percent, which is conducive to surface mold growth.

The report noted discoloration on HVAC diffusers and on ceiling tiles and a “spongy” feel to the flooring. A musty odor was also reported in the garage where surface mold was spotted on the walls, ceiling and furniture stored there. There was a “thick layer of black mold” on the walls where rain leaked in through missing vents and screens.

“The modular classroom wing and maintenance garage have a significant mold/moisture problem that requires immediate, professional attention,” Brown wrote. “The structure has probably exceeded its useful life span and it may not be cost-effective to rehabilitate.”

erin.kayata@stamfordadvocate.com; (203) 964-2265; @erin_kayata

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