School District makes it tough to check on mold problem in elementary school
It could have been simple, but the Indian River School District chose to make it hard.
A source, who requested anonymity because she fears reprisal, said Fellsmere Elementary has mold, cracks and other signs of neglect. Her account was backed up by two additional sources, including a parent who has two children at the school. Whether there is mold at the school or not could easily have been determined this week – if access to the facility had been provided.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead of proving the problems don’t exist, the school district proved it uses delaying tactics and squelches press contact, which is anti-sunshine and a good culture for growing mold and many varieties of neglect.
Vero Beach 32963 began investigating school conditions after School Board member Charles Searcy complained about poor conditions district-wide during a meeting at Beachland Elementary two weeks ago.
At that meeting, the school district announced it is finally going ahead with a multimillion-dollar renovation of the island’s only elementary school, where parents have complained bitterly for years about dilapidated conditions making children ill.
But Searcy said the district is facing $100 million worth of additional “health and safety issues” at other schools. “We’re missing the boat,” he said.
One of the two additional sources who came forward about conditions at Fellsmere Elementary was fearful and asked for anonymity; the other spoke on the record. Their stories are in stark contrast with school district claims.
The initial source said black and green mold had been discovered in a new section of the school built in 2014, and that the janitor had been tasked with removing it until a teacher insisted a professional be brought in.
She said the 85-percent Hispanic population attending the school compounded the problem because many parents don’t speak English, are wary of rousing the ire of authority and are too exhausted from long work hours to be vocal or powerful advocates for their children.
This source also claimed Principal Ramon Cheverria is not a strong leader and avoids raising problem issues.
The second anonymous source, a parent, said she had successfully avoided placing her child in the school until third grade. She said both the new two-story building and the older buildings had mold. She too, independently said the “custodian” and not a “qualified person” did the mold removal. She was unaware that a professional was finally brought in.
“The staff won’t tell the school board,” she said. “This is the most neglected school in the district. I’ve never seen anything as poorly run. The whole school needs to be shut down until they get competent teachers and staff.”
The third source, also a parent, Elizabeth Candanosa, said one of her daughters attends pre-K in an older building and she has another attending third grade in the new building. The third grader is not suffering from allergic mold reactions, but her pre-K daughter “comes home each day with a runny nose, sneezing and coughing and with her eyes watering,” which stops soon after she’s home.
She said she complained to Vice Principal Kimberly Garcia in October, who oddly said a humidifier would be installed in her daughter’s classroom. Candanosa said her request for a mold test has been ignored.
During a particularly intense coughing and sneezing period, Candanosa said, the school insisted her daughter remain home for three days instead of investigating for mold.
Independently, Candanosa also attributed the lack of advocacy for better building conditions to the school’s predominately Hispanic population. “They don’t like to complain and they don’t speak English,” she said.
Her daughter’s teacher has asked her to voice concerns at PTA meetings, Candanosa said, “because none of the other parents ever say anything.”
Trying to obtain information from the school and school district to verify or refute these allegations proved difficult. The information portal was choked down to the district’s mouthpiece, Flynn Fidgeon, who came through with no information until Friday, after days of delay.
The first delay was Fidgeon’s claim he never got an email sent Tuesday, which he needed to fulfill a records request. It took two days for him to compose and shoot his own email through the district firewall and another day for it to land in this reporter’s inbox. The reply-records-request got through Friday, but providing the requested documents will take time, Fidgeon said, and staff costs and payment need to be determined.
The second delay found Fidgeon running interference between this reporter and school code compliance inspector Scott Granger, who was willing to quickly provide the latest building inspections documents on Wednesday. Granger said the school did have mold in the new building, but the contractor had come back and fixed the problem.
Asked about Granger’s statement, Fidgeon said, “Perhaps Mr. Granger misspoke.”
It should be noted that although state law requires school districts to inspect buildings yearly, the inspection is done by school district building inspectors, not county or state inspectors.
Before he was silenced, Granger said the stucco hadn’t adhered to the concrete block understructure of the new building, leaving pockets that let in moisture. There was also a whiteboard that had been wrongly installed without spacers, growing mold, which was discovered after it was moved to another location, but that too had been cured, he said.
In the third delay, Fidgeon insisted that Director of Facilities Scott Sanders was the definitive authority on the school’s condition, not Granger, but said even a phone call with Sanders had to be scheduled by him.
In the fourth delay, Fidgeon ran interference with Fellsmere Elementary staff. Principal Cheverria returned a call requesting a tour Wednesday or Thursday, sounding cooperative. He left a message to call his assistant, who would get him wherever he was and to please call again. But Fidgeon quashed Cheverria’s and all other school staff’s communication with the media, insisting all information go through him.
The original tipster informed this reporter of the memo instructing staff not to speak to the media. She also said another situation had developed: “X’s” had been taped on walls where hollow pockets had been identified.
Fidgeon said Sanders had to be present for any school tour “to answer questions” and Sanders “couldn’t just drop everything.” On Friday, Fidgeon said no tour would be possible because Sanders “was taking a personal day.”
Told a story would run with or without the school district’s response, Fidgeon arranged a brief conference call with Sanders late Friday afternoon, also pulling in John Earman, director of the physical plant, to answer questions.
Fellsmere had mold behind a whiteboard, Sanders said, which was treated two weeks ago and is no longer an issue. A professional had been called in, with chemical sprays applied and air exchange vents tested for air quality, he said. It’s true there are pockets between the stucco and concrete brick, but mold needs food to grow and “concrete block and stucco have no nitrogen,” he said, so no mold tests have been conducted.
Earman and Sanders said mold needs three things – heat, moisture and food – and the school monitors for moisture 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If humidity rises above 60 percent, mold is investigated. If the air conditioning is off for more than 48 hours, the window necessary for mold to take hold, a mold investigation is done.
Sanders admitted there have been sporadic breakdowns of the air conditioning, but said the longest, in both old and new buildings, has been no longer than six hours. Therefore, no mold tests have been performed this year, Sanders said.
The second anonymous source, however, said the AC has not worked in part of one building since school started.
Sanders said they initially discovered problems with moisture on the first floor of the new two-story classroom building about two months ago. Since it was a warranty issue, the contractor was called. The window seals were tightened and cracks were patched, but still moisture was a problem, he said. That’s what led to further investigation of voids behind the stucco, which are still being identified, Sanders said.
Sanders and Earman said a facilities person is at the school each day, making it easy for school staff to find him and report any problems. Parents can report concerns, which should be emailed to various email addresses to be found on the school district’s website, Sanders said. They have received no such complaints, he said.
A Friday email seeking information about conditions at the school sent to the Fellsmere PTA president, Alex Alvarado, got no response.
School Board members Claudia Jimenez, Shawn Frost and Charles Searcy all said they were not aware of a mold problem at Fellsmere Elementary.
At the Beachland meeting between concerned parents and the board, Searcy complained about the district allowing buildings to fall into the kind of disrepair seen at Beachland before repairing or replacing them.
“Where have we been? These people have been crying out like in the wilderness,” he said.
Searcy said he feels “the capital improvements plan isn’t vetted enough,” and “the finance guy and staff put it together and can move projects around,” further obscuring the weighting process between maintenance and capital projects expenses.
He said he keeps asking how the school district had amassed a $100 million backlog of needed health and safety fixes, “but I don’t get any good answers.”
Jimenez said, “We have $100 million in work that needs to be done because our capital outlay budget keeps getting cut.”
She said the legislature is pressuring school districts to give more to charter schools, and unforeseen expenses, such as the breakdown of Vero Beach High School’s HVAC system, are further stressing the district’s limited funds.