Mold Tally Reaches $70M for Stamford, as City Explores Mediation

(CT Examiner)


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STAMFORD – Mold had been stewing in city school buildings for decades.

The reasons, officials have said, are that buildings were poorly designed, poorly built, or poorly maintained, and sometimes all three. Superintendents reported that their annual repair requests for $20 million or $30 million would be cut to $5 million or $6 million.

The biggest culprit was water. It came in through windows and roofs, and ran down walls. Air ducts were full of moisture. Some schools were built on wetlands, and water seeped through foundations.

So conditions were ripe for mold to flourish during the summer of 2018, when the rain fell hard and the days were excessively humid. 

After one of the elementary schools, Westover Magnet, opened that September, mold was found to be so extensive that the building had to be closed. In a mad scramble, students and staff were moved to a quickly renovated office building, where they remained until June.

Contractors were brought in to Westover and most of the city’s other 20 school buildings to remove mold, replace Sheetrock, fix roof leaks, repair windows and redo air circulation systems. Students who remained in their buildings were shuffled from room to room. 

The bills came in fast. Budget deficit predictions kept changing. To cover the costs, the school district froze hiring, overtime and discretionary spending, and the city issued $40 million in bonds. Officials doubled the city’s debt limit, and considered sending out an extra tax bill that year. 

In the rush to remove the mold, school officials went to the Board of Finance to ask for money they’d already spent; board members refused to release funding without receipts explaining where it went. 

No one ever said exactly how much it all ended up costing.

Now, nearly six years after the mold emergency began, there is an estimate: $70 million.

The number comes from a lawsuit the city filed in 2019 against two maintenance companies hired to oversee Stamford’s public school buildings. AFB Construction Management of Trumbull had a contract with the school district from 2001 to 2017, and ABM Group of Industries of New York City had a contract from 2017 to 2019.

The lawsuit came up this week, when Director of Legal Affairs Thomas Cassone presented his department’s 2024-25 budget request to the Board of Finance.

“We have a … litigation matter that’s been going on for a few years which is actually heating up now, and that is school mold litigation. We just received an estimate of the damages that the city incurred as a result of that,” Cassone said, revealing the $70 million amount.

ABM, the New York company, “is a national organization with unlimited funds,” Cassone told the board, and AFB, the Trumbull firm, “is just a small company … there’s a limited amount of insurance with that.”

“The $70 million, if it lands anywhere, it lands on ABM,” Cassone said. “We hope to enter mediation later this year.”

To date, the law department has spent $171,000 to bring suit against the two building management companies, he said.

The city, along with the school district, charged ABM Group of Industries, which managed school buildings for two years, with breach of contract, negligence, violating the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, and fraudulent billing.

According to the lawsuit, city and school custodians were opening Westover Magnet Elementary School in early August 2018 when they discovered a large quantity of mold.

“In response,” the lawsuit states, “ABM attempted to remediate the condition simply by washing and painting the surfaces on which the mold was found. ABM made no significant effort to determine the source or the underlying cause of the mold infestation. For example, it did not investigate to determine whether mold was present below any of the surfaces it cleaned or whether there were any areas where water was infiltrating into the building.”

City and school officials then formed a Mold Task Force which took over the situation at Westover and “commissioned a study to determine the underlying cause of the infestation there,” according to the suit.

The study revealed that “the mold infestation largely stemmed from a combination of a compromised roof and building envelope, failing mechanical systems, including (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning units) and the decision to shut down HVAC systems, to the extent they were working, over the summer months, as a result of which the building was left to suffer through the humid summer months without properly conditioned air,” according to the suit.

The Mold Task Force then commissioned studies of each of the other school buildings, the suit states. The studies found that all school buildings “had at least some mold, and many were severely infested.”

The studies also revealed that “basic maintenance functions, such as inspecting HVAC systems to ensure their continued operation and replacing HVAC components and filters as required, were not being performed in a timely fashion, if at all,” the suit states. When water infiltration was discovered, ABM patched the wall or ceiling and did “nothing to determine the underlying cause or even the entry-point of water,” according to the lawsuit. 

The company also failed to conduct a building needs study as promised, the suit states.

It further charges that ABM did not fulfill another contractual obligation when it failed to provide up to 56 part-time custodians from an outside vendor to supplement the 120 full-time city and school custodians.

ABM billed the Board of Education for the 56 part-timers but the city and school board discovered “that ABM had rarely furnished the 56 part-time custodians for which it billed, that most of the time, the number of part-time custodians … was substantially less, in many instances less than 30 part-time custodians,” the suit states.

In June 2019, the Board of Education terminated ABM’s contract.

The city and school district sued AFB Construction Management, which oversaw school buildings for 16 years before ABM, for breach of contract, alleging that AFB “was a substantial factor in causing the conditions” that led to mold infestation.

According to the lawsuit, “The condition of the building envelopes and roofs, in particular, have been the result of a failure effectively to follow and implement routine and preventative maintenance programs. HVAC systems, which are necessary to condition air and reduce the presence of mold-producing moisture, were in particularly poor repair.”

City officials learned that “AFB instituted a program of shutting down HVAC systems during the summer to save energy, which resulted in humid environments indoors for the summer months each year. In addition, multiple types of mold were discovered across the (21 school buildings,) several of the type that require years to develop to the extent they had when they were discovered.”

An ABM attorney, Peter Gaudioso of McElroy Deutsch Mulvaney & Carpenter, said Thursday the company does not comment on ongoing litigation.

AFB did not return a request for comment. The president of the company, Al Barbarotta, has said the city failed to fund repair work and ignored a 2009 building study that called for an assessment of possible mold growth in a number of schools.

 A court filing dated Nov. 9 states that the city and two building maintenance companies are “exploring the possibility of a mediation in 2024,” as Cassone told the finance board. 

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.