Saturday, December 9, 2023

Public records show PCS approached Topsail Middle air quality issues with lax response

Topsail Middle School has faced ongoing concerns with air quality issues and while some work has been tackled, internal emails show administration has students have been sent home by the school nurse at an alarming rate. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

PENDER COUNTY — After a year-and-a-half of parents and teachers complaining about ongoing mold and air-quality issues at Topsail Middle School, Port City Daily has learned the school was sending home students at a 40% higher rate than the rest of the district.

The numbers seemed to alarm school officials, according to a public records request shared with Port City Daily.

READ MORE: Walls to come down at Topsail Middle as school board bows to pressure on mold issue

“TMS does appear to be skewed quite a bit,” Pender County Schools chief officer of human resources Kevin Taylor wrote in an email Sept. 21 to administration, including PCS former superintendent Steven Hill, attorney Brandon McPherson, chief officer of auxiliary services Michael Taylor, and interim superintendent Michael Bracy (superintendent Brad Breedlove started Jan. 1, 2023, following Hill’s departure Oct. 10). 

Internal emails showed, of all students who report to the school nurse with an illness, 70% get sent home at Topsail Middle, compared to the district wide average of 32%.

Within the first 30 days of Topsail Middle School’s 2022-2023 academic year, 128 students were sent to the nurse, with 90 unhealthy enough to be sent home. Topsail Middle’s percentage of dismissed kids equals 11% of its average daily membership (807 students), compared to 3.5% for other schools.

According to the North Carolina School Report Cards for Topsail Middle, the school indicates chronic absenteeism as 41.3% for 2021-2022, 6% higher than the Pender County Schools average and 10% higher than the state average.

PCD reached out to communications coordinator Bob Fankboner, as is protocol for media, to inquire about the number of students being sent home at TMS back in September. He was out of the office and his automated message pointed inquiries to senior executive assistant Beth Gardner.

Over the course of a week, multiple emails and voicemails by PCD to Gardner went unanswered.

“I would not typically share this type of information [publicly],” public records show Kevin Taylor wrote to colleagues, referring to PCD’s inquiry. “This is likely the result of the child that was sent home by the nurse. I would be more willing to share our protocols for when nurses do send sick kids home instead of numbers.”

In response, Hill said he favored Taylor’s thoughts and included there was “no time requirement to respond” to the media outlet.

Fankboner pointed out to administrators in an email, “it’s a bad look” for the school system to “wait and wait and wait” to provide answers.

PCD has reported ongoing issues at Topsail Middle over the last year. For 18 months, Pender County Schools has engaged multiple vendors to test the indoor air quality of Topsail Middle buildings, as well as the working order of its HVAC systems.

All the while, parents have complained about the moldy condition of the school having an effect on their children’s health — headaches, runny noses, sneezing, coughing — and the lack of communication from administration.

Internal emails show district leadership has known about the issues for close to two years. They also exhibit that Topsail Middle is not the only school with concerns.

One parent in particular has been steadfast in asking questions and demanding answers from Pender County Schools. Ashley Sitorius has two children at Topsail Middle, one of whom has severe allergies, the other diagnosed with a brain tumor. In January 2022, she pulled her son from school for about two weeks due to his persistent symptoms related to mold in the building.

She posted, “I am SICK & TIRED of my son being sent home by TMS’ nurse because of allergies. (4x now)” on social media in December 2021 after also emailing administration for the umpteenth time about her concerns. Records show Topsail Middle principal Jacob Lawrence wrote to former superintendent Hill and former chief of auxiliary services Darren LaFon last January, in response to Sitorius’ post: 

“Just an FYI, it seems this parent has provided some panic among TMS parents regarding her FB posts over the weekend about the school buildings.” 

When coordinating Sitorius’ son’s assignments to work virtually, his teacher at the time wrote to the student information system coordinator: “Mr. Lawrence is allowing one of our students to work from home from Google classroom because he has a doctor’s note due to mold allergies. He had a meeting with Mom, has been a mess with this Mom … Mom is not nice.”

Sitorius also chose to pull her daughter out of school from Sept. 26 to Oct. 31, 2022 with a note from her oncologist, after experiencing ongoing headaches. The doctor recommended seeing if her symptoms subside over winter break; if so, he surmised the building is likely the cause. 

Sitorius noted Tuesday, her daughter’s symptoms have in fact diminished while she’s been home for two weeks. She has been mulling the idea of transferring the child to a different school.

“I wish PCS/TMS would hold town hall-style meetings so parents would be able to have a Q&A with all parties,” Sitorius wrote to PCD about her frustrations. “They’re more concerned about shutting me up than targeting the mold and high CO2. Please be transparent with us (parents) so we feel safe to send our kids to school. Stop trying to sweep things under the rug! Lack of transparency leads to major distrust.”

Sitorius is not the only parent who has expressed concerns and complained about students being sick after being in the Topsail Middle building.

During the course of the last two school calendars, a public records request shows a handful of parents have sent more than a dozen emails complaining and asking school officials when mold issues will be resolved.

Parents criticized school administration for not being responsive to their concerns or requests, citing a lack of returned emails and phone calls and no sense of urgency.

“It has been brought to my attention, [a student’s] eyes and nose bother him in certain parts of the school building, 7th grade and gyms particularly. Watery eyes, itchy nose, etc.,” one parent wrote Dec. 20, 2021. The parent asked if there was a way to expedite an air quality test: “Years ago there was a mold issue and I’m wondering if it’s back.”

On Feb. 22, 2022, after air quality tests had been performed twice, another parent reached out to the TMS principal.

“It’s come to my attention there has been mold detected in Mrs. Zahms classroom. [A student] has been complaining of headaches since [starting] 6th grade,” a parent wrote and indicated concern since the student has a mold and mildew allergy.

“I trust this will be resolved relatively quickly?” the parent asked.

The principal said students were being relocated to a trailer while remediation was underway.

Another email came in on Sept. 14, 2022, noting a student was out sick and would work from home.

“She mentioned a lot of kids are out sick,” the parent wrote. “I am very concerned about the known mold issues with her having asthma. She is negative for Covid.”

The same day another individual asked for the most recent air quality report to provide the child’s doctor for review.

Emails show teachers have also complained to school administration about symptoms while teaching at TMS.

In August 2021, one emailed the principal after seeing crews testing for mold and air quality, noting she’s extremely sensitive to a variety of environmental allergens.

“I had no idea that air quality could be an issue … and then it hit me that would explain what I was seeing and cleaning off walls and furniture and how I was feeling,” she wrote.

The incident took place prior to the start of the school year, as the teacher was setting up her classroom. She said she went home to rest after feeling ill and went back to the building around 7 p.m.

“When I got there, I immediately noticed the moisture that was on everything, but still went to work trying to get it all organized. I left at 9 p.m. with a headache, runny nose and sore throat,” she wrote. “I know that the central office is working on the problem, at least starting to identify the issue, but I worry there will be a quick fix and then the problem returns.”

A July 26, 2021, work order stated: “TMS temp in storage room is 80 and mold growing on doors this is not safe.” 

On Aug. 4, the work order was updated: “Action taken: checked doors, wiped off, looks like dirt.”

The same day another request was submitted: “Room 719 has condensation build up, water in student seat, ceiling paint peeling from water leaking (slow leak) from what I see; mold on classroom door and student desks around edges.”

PCS director of maintenance Glenn Rogers sent an email to AdvantaClean Aug. 10, 2021: “We need your help ASAP.”

A week later, between Aug. 12 and Aug. 16, in 2021, PCS administration received multiple quotes for duct-cleaning work, drywall replacement and mold remediation. 

ECS Southeast, the school’s hired industrial hygienist, was on site at Topsail Middle the same month to address the rising issues. Hygienist Amy DeSaix’s results showed elevated aspergillus/penicillium mold spores within the building, visible mold growth as a result of elevated humidity, drywall surrounding HVAC ducts was wet with standing water on floors and chairs.

DeSaix noted the drywall moisture reading was 11.7%, with between 5% and 12% being an “acceptable” range.

PCS spokesperson Fankboner confirmed duct cleaning and remediation was in fact done prior to the 2021-2022 school year. 

“Not an annual procedure,” he wrote. “The cleaning is done as needed.”

Millions of dollars

Sixteen months later, the board of education bowed to pressure from complaints and approved an $86,259 contract in October 2022 for HVAC and duct cleaning at all Topsail Middle buildings, as well as the demolition and repair of exterior walls for rooms 703, 707 and 709. AdvantaClean was hired for duct work and ServPro was enlisted to handle mold remediation.

Crews were scheduled to complete the job by mid-November. Chief officer of auxiliary services Taylor told PCD the final area of cleaning took place Dec. 21, when kids were out for winter break.

According to Taylor, who sent an email to parent Sitorius Oct. 28, only the affected wood was removed from the walls. Then a “vapor barrier” was installed and the entire exterior wall was covered with vinyl siding. The interior walls were re-tested for moisture and any impacted areas were torn out.

Following the completed work, the EI Group — consultants focused on air quality and mold monitoring — retested the buildings Nov. 16.

The report showed all recommendations were completed and “remediation efforts are satisfactory.” However, it also noted that the removal of visible growth “does not guarantee that the mold will not return or that all indoor sources of mold have been discovered or removed.”

The funding to clean TMS came from Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) money, approved by the feds for school districts as part of the March 2021 American Rescue Plan Act. Nearly $122 billion was divided among eligible school systems nationwide.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s website shows Pender County received three tranches of ESSER funds: $1.6 million, which has been spent; $8.11 million, half of which has been already used; and $19.1 million in ESSER III funds. The school still has more than $13 million available, eligible to use for tackling air quality issues.

Pender County Schools administration said “millions of dollars have been used on multiple projects,” but did not provide exact details on where ESSER funds have been spent by press.

Internal emails show school administration discussing the state needing more information for an ESSER grant application in May 2021.

Chief academic officer Charles Aiken wrote to facilities staff, including Darren LaFon, William Nelson and Glenn Rogers, he was seeking additional information needed by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction for the grant.

“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in an attempt to prevent further spread of the virus Pender County Schools is seeking to use available funds to purchase and install additional higher quality HVAC systems, repair and upgrade water foundations and pipes that sat idle since March of 2020, and repair windows/roofing per CDEC guidance to support additional mitigation and spread of the COVID-19 virus.”

When PCD asked in May if Topsail Middle renovations, slated to be done within the newly passed $173-million school bond, included mold remediation, Fankboner asked former superintendent Hill for approval of his responses before replying.

“TMS hasn’t come back mold infested just a few recommendations to improve,” Hill wrote to Fankboner. “This question appears to be based on the social media hype.”

Pender County has spent more than $108,000 on indoor air quality tests, mold sampling and remediation efforts, utilizing multiple vendors at Topsail Middle over the last year. PCS also paid half a million in restoration efforts at Topsail Middle following Hurricane Florence damage.

While PCD did not obtain a full breakdown of ESSER spending by press, despite multiple requests of PCS administration, public meetings show the recent approval of nearly $350,000.

Of that money, $300,000 will go toward HVAC system replacements. However, as equipment is typically only built once ordered, according to Taylor, there is a six- to eight-month delay.

The funds are being used to purchase 30 wall-mounted HVAC units from Bard Manufacturing to install districtwide; some are slated to go to Topsail Middle.

“They are the sole provider for specs we drew up regarding trying to decrease CO2 levels in the environment and improving indoor air quality overall,” Taylor told the board at the meeting.

Most of the 2.5- to 3-ton units are at “end of life,” he said, or no longer repairable. The issue is many units still use R22 Freon. Yet, the production has been slowly phased out since 2010, making it less available and expensive to purchase.

In comparison, newer units use 420, four times less expensive — $400 per drum versus $1,500 — Taylor said to the board, making the district’s units more costly to maintain.

“Additionally, part of the problem is we’re stealing equipment off other pieces of equipment … to keep things running,” Taylor explained during the meeting. “It’s been difficult to keep up with the failure rate.”

Once the equipment arrives, Taylor told the board he will subcontract the labor for installation.

TMS principal Jacob Lawrence sent an email to staff Oct. 10, 2022, regarding the latest air quality assessment done in the buildings.

Not just Topsail Middle

According to assessments and internal emails, multiple schools in the district also need improvements to infrastructure. 

Consulting engineers Cheatham and Associates were hired in October 2021 to assess all Pender County Schools buildings and HVAC systems. The assessment was completed in September, but the final report on all the schools has not been posted yet. Three have been released, including Topsail Middle, Pender High School and combined Surf City Elementary and Middle Schools.

The school board approved more than $40,000 Dec. 13 for labor to install a 15-ton HVAC unit at Pender High School.

The unit being replaced is one of many at or beyond its expected service life at the high school. The report also noted the ductwork in all eight of Pender High’s buildings — constructed between 1973 and 2016 — had not been cleaned since 2005. 

It added dehumidification does not work at the school if outdoor temperatures are above 90 degrees.

To make all 25 recommended repairs and upgrades, the Pender County Board of Education would need to spend $2.4 million.

A litany of emails from public records reinforce other school buildings have faced ongoing mold and air quality issues for at least 18 months.

A seventh-grade teacher from Surf City sent an email to school administration Oct. 15, 2021 about an odor kids were complaining about in her classroom.

“Smells like mold they say,” she wrote. “First class didn’t say a word and I can’t notice it, but they are being quite dramatic about it. Figured I had better report it.”

Surf City elementary and middle schools were recently constructed in 2018 and Cheatham noted most of its HVAC equipment was in good condition; however, the company still recommended more than $800,000 be spent on upgrades.

In 2021, a memo sent from Malpass Elementary assistant principal Nikki Braun reminded staff to leave the air conditioning on over the summer.

“We purchased $15,000 in new library books this year due to mold found in our existing books,” she wrote.

Notes from Cheatham and Associates’ site visits — Malpass’ official report has not been released — indicate: “[b]uilding was humid, musty and had an unpleasant odor and the ceiling tiles in many rooms were bowed from excessive moisture.”

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