Mark McDermott

Mold, asbestos problems linger at MBUSD

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by Mark McDermott

Eugene Jurinsky moved to Manhattan Beach five years ago in large part because he had two young boys and he knew local schools were academically sound. Of late, he’s wondered about that decision, not because the schools aren’t great academically, but because they seem to be falling apart physically.

His youngest boy, Michael, is a fifth grader at Pacific Elementary. Last week, his homeroom was moved due to mold infestation. His oldest boy, Timothy, is a student at Mira Costa High School. His French classroom has also been relocated due to mold.

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“We have not received any communication from Mira Costa that my son has been exposed to mold,” Jurinsky said.

His son at Costa has also not received textbooks for most of his classes yet this school year due to the asbestos remediation that has been underway since August in the MCHS library, a project that resulted in an investigation by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The agency received a complaint that asbestos had been disturbed on Aug. 16 and, along with the LA County Health Department, required the library and adjoining textbook storage rooms be closed off until remediation is complete. District officials hope that will occur in coming weeks.

But Jurinsky’s patience has run out, and he’s not alone. A teacher from Pacific sent him a mold report but he’s still waiting for one from the high school. He’s emailed and called several times with that request.

“I indicated, it’s an urgent matter. It’s health,” Jurinsky said. “And I’m very concerned and still waiting for the reply. They are sending out general announcements about recent developments…but they are not addressing what is happening at the school. It’s unacceptable.”

“My older son is a junior and this year is extremely important for college admission,” Jurinsky said. “The school district does not seem to care about it. Bottom line, MBUSD failed miserably this year and it does not look like anyone is being held accountable for the situation we are all in.”

Shawn Chen, the president of the Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association, said that five teachers, and at least three students, have suffered reactions to the mold. She said the problem is not new but that teachers have been unable to get MBUSD leadership to attend to the problem until now.

“Many teachers at multiple district schools have been reporting unacceptable conditions with mold over the past several years,” Chen said.

District officials discovered the mold problems in September, primarily at Manhattan Beach Middle School and MCHC. By early October, 17 rooms had been found to contain potentially harmful concentrations of mold. The School Board subsequently authorized a more comprehensive testing of both campuses and a testing of any room on any district campus in which a mold concern is reported; thus far, more than a dozen classrooms elsewhere in the district have been tested, including rooms at Pacific, Meadows Elementary, Robinson Elementary, and Manhattan Beach Preschool.

“This is not the Fall we were hoping for,” said Karen Komatinsky, president of the MBUSD Board of Education.

Komatinsky said she understood the level of frustration parents such as Jurinksky felt.

“To that parent, I’m really, really sorry,” she said. “As things have gone on, regarding communication with parents, our superintendent has done a good job communicating with the public the state of things through emails to all parents, but there have been some hiccups at the site level.

Everybody is trying to deal with this while also making sure the school days are being done well.”

The school board has explored several long-term fixes to ensure the mold problem does not arise again, including repairs to roofs and air conditioning systems, vent installations, new cleaning equipment, and the hiring of additional maintenance workers. The board will host a workshop at district headquarters at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday to go over all issues at district facilities.

Superintendent Mike Matthews sent out an email last week in which he addressed the asbestos situation at the MCHS library. He wrote that the abatement process was completed three weeks ago and the district is now working with SCAQMD and the county health department on the final steps required before reopening the library, including reaching out to anyone who was in the library the day the sanding occurred to collect books and materials. That step was completed Oct. 30; the next step will bring in a contractor to remove any remaining materials, which will complete remediation.

“At that point, we will be able to ask LA County Fire to re-open the library, we will access and distribute the books in the library, and we will begin the work to replace the flooring and other materials that have been removed from the library during the remediation process,” Matthews wrote. “We are hopeful that we will have access to all books by the first week in November and that we will be able to return the library to full normal operations soon after that.”

Matthews is expected to send a full, comprehensive letter out to district parents early next week addressing both the mold and asbestos issues. Assistant Superintendent Dawnalyn Murakawa-Leopard told the Board at its Oct. 5 meeting the mold problems had arisen through a combination of factors, including HVAC issues, particularly in portable classrooms; the construction of the portables themselves; carpeting that was cleaned but not allowed to fully dry; inadequate ventilation; and in one case a faulty hot water heater.

“It’s been scattered and different sources,” she said.

Budget cuts required by reduced state education funding over the last two decades have particularly decimated the maintenance crew as well as deferred maintenance projects. Murakawa-Leopard said that the maintenance crew was extremely understaffed, with a crew of 10 to cover issues throughout the district. A formula for determining how many workers would be ideal, factoring in the size of the district, suggests that as many as 35 workers are needed, she said. The board authorized the hiring of three more staff and is exploring more hires.

“That is a really big problem,” Komatinsky said. “We are very short handed from that standpoint. Most districts of our budget, size and student population have a much bigger staff.”

Komatinsky said the problem is a broad one, without anyone quick fix, but rather something that will need to be addressed in myriad ways.

“It’s an unfortunate thing,” she said. “We don’t live in Palm Springs. We are close to the beach and have a number of factors that contribute to the possibility of mold growth. Our facilities are old, and fog and humidity factors in,” she said. “We know these kinds of things are in these buildings because they are old buildings. We have done very little to nothing towards deferred maintenance for years, for budget reasons…We can’t keep doing that. It’s like the upkeep of a house.”

Chen said that the issue a simpler one.

“It’s mismanagement and it’s inappropriate allocation of resources,” she said. “It’s definitely true they have cut maintenance over the years —  and increased buildings — but again, that is not an excuse. It’s an explanation but not an excuse for mismanagement. It’s your job to safeguard the school district. We just have to keep schools clean.”

Chen said she personally began reporting mold issues as early as 2013, and that not all of them are old buildings, as the relatively new science building on the Mira Costa campus has experienced severe mold problems, including a drainage blockage and flooding just weeks ago. She also said that among the outcomes of the present emergency should be a greater sense of accountability, including regarding maintenance leadership, who she said also bear responsibility for allowing the MCHS library floor to be disturbed. She said there has been a chronic disregard for environmental safeguards within MBUSD.

“The current situation is hopefully going to result in actual repercussions for people,” Chen said. “They are serial, flagrant scofflaws. They think these environmental projects are the contractor’s responsibilities —  but it’s the responsibility of the people managing construction projects to follow the rules.”

“Additionally, the same facilities director under whose guidance these buildings have suffered such neglect is in charge of the remediation,” Chen said.

Komatinsky said that no one person is responsible for the problems that have occurred.

“At the end of the day, the district is responsible for it —  it’s our property, and our project,” she said. “I don’t believe it falls on any one individual. I believe it’s an unfortunate set of circumstances we are facing, for sure, and we are all really disappointed it has resulted in the way it did. But I don’t think we are going about our business looking for a head. We’ve got a problem and a lot of those buildings were built in the 1950s. It’s disappointing it was discovered the way it was, but we are not in the business of laying blame on one person. We are in the business of trying to solve the problem and get back to school. We have to fix the problem.”

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