CHESTER/DEEP RIVER/ESSEX — Board of Education members questioned a timeline that could return students to John Winthrop Middle School as early as January, and expressed frustration with the delay in hiring experts to clean up the mold.
Students, staff and teachers from the middle school were all moved to Valley Regional High School in September after mold was discovered in the building. An indoor air quality report from the firm EnviroMed Services, Inc. found “significant” levels of mold on surfaces and mold in about 30 percent of the air samples taken in the building.
The district has since been searching for engineering firms to find the source of the mold, and has asked EnviroMed to provide a “cleaning spec,” or a document that will outline what a remediation company would need to do in order to make the building habitable for students.
Region 4 Schools Superintendent Brian White told board members on Monday that he believed John Winthrop Middle School could be ready for students to return to as early as January, but warned this would be an “aggressive” timeline and necessitate contracting a remediation firm with enough staff to do the job quickly.
White said the district had received 12 proposals from project managers and engineering firms interested in working on the project, and that they expected to have a company selected by Nov. 6. White estimated the district would be “well underway” with the analysis and the mold remediation by mid-November.
“Early to mid-December will be for us a decision point in terms of how we want to proceed, specifically if we’re feeling confident that a safe reentry is possible in January,” White said.
But board members expressed skepticism that the students could return to the building within three months.
Board member John Stack criticized EnviroMed for the delay in receiving the cleaning spec.
“I do not get why that spec is taking so unbelievably long,” Stack said. “They’ve had more than enough time to have that in our hands right now.”
Without the cleaning spec, Stack said, the board cannot ask companies for remediation cost estimates. He also said the district should prepare for remediation companies to tour the building as soon as the cleaning spec was finished.
While the cleaning spec is expected to be ready by Nov. 10, other board members said that was too late.
“There’s a certain amount of frustration. I’m sorry about that. I’m sure you feel it too, but we’re in a crisis,” board Chair Kate Sandmann said. “It’s a priority, so everything that can be done to share that urgency with the people we are paying to help us, I think would be appreciated.”
Board member Rick Daniels said he didn’t see how it would be possible to allow students back to John Winthrop in January.
“You’re not going to have all that timeline in place until December and you’re going to expect to get it done in a month — in a little over a month — to get the kids back in school in January? It’s not going to be a quick solution. October’s over,” Daniels said.
Board member Alex Silva asked the district to provide legal analysis from Shipman and Goodwin, the district’s attorneys, about why they needed to go through an extensive remediation project to bring students back into the building.
“It’s just hard for people to quantify why we’re treating the building as if it’s Millstone in a meltdown, to use one phrase,” Silva said. “And I tend to agree. I’m not an expert in this stuff, and I do want to defer to them. But as a jurist here, if you will, the case to me hasn’t necessarily been made that the most conservative approach to this is the right one.”
Board members also discussed renting three units of portable office space for teachers to use for lesson planning and other needs. Finance Director Bob Grissom said the cost would be $10,000 to rent the space, $20,000 for a generator and some additional costs that could bring the total between $45,000 and $50,000. White told the board that the district sent the paperwork to Deep River, which could take up to 30 days to approve the units.
Niki Waz, a Chester Elementary School teacher and president of the Region 4 Education Association, told the board that teachers felt supported by the building principals and that the situation had improved.
“The music teachers are no longer teaching in the hallway — fantastic. Kids have their lockers back. No more grab-and-go lunches,” Waz said.
But Waz noted the teachers were also looking for a clearer timeline on remediation and when they could return to the building.
“Unfortunately, teacher morale is still suffering a bit. There’s so many competing interests at this point, between the two faculties. … A problem gets solved for one group and then 10 problems arise for another,” Waz said. “I’m specifically the most concerned about preserving what I really feel is a really strong staff right now. I want the district to retain its people, and I want us to assure them that … yes, it’s caused an interruption, but the Board of Ed, the administration, the experts that have been procured, we’re working to resolve it in the quickest way possible.”