by Paul C. Clark
Staff Writer Dec. 3, 2009
Guilford County Schools has reached the most ludicrous, but always most likely, outcome to the long-running Oak Ridge Elementary School mystery: no smoking gun as to the cause of the symptoms reported for years by teachers and students; no one willing to take the legal risk of even suggesting one, or of declaring the entire incident a case of mass hysteria; and school administrators, despite having spent in the neighborhood of $1.5 million on the school, scurrying to send students back to the school, which has been closed since June.
The four-year-long legal, environmental and medical farce reached its height of asininity at the school board’s meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 1, when paid-by-the-hour school board attorney Jill Wilson dope-slapped school board member Paul Daniels and Guilford County Schools Chief Operations Officer Leo Bobadilla for even talking about talking about what is actually wrong, or not wrong, with the school. Oak Ridge students have been split among three other schools since a wave of headaches, respiratory problems and other symptoms forced its closure.
You heard that right. The school board spent four years and a million and a half dollars on testing and remediation, called in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – the gold standard in figuring out what is wrong with public buildings – spent months running around fixing things NIOSH and a big-dollar New England consulting firm, Turner Group, wouldn’t exactly say were the problem with the building, and yet no one will talk about what anybody found out.
Lord knows there is data out there. Guilford County Schools has released reams (no exaggeration) of testing results. The school has had a recurring mold problem, a questionable heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, is reported to have had a host of problems during construction (whose fault, a current lawsuit will have to determine), and has generated a passel of reported symptoms ranging from the scary – spontaneous nosebleeds – to the bizarre – spontaneous puberty – as if elementary school students didn’t have problems enough. But no one – not Guilford County Schools, not NIOSH and not the gaggle of highly paid testing services that have examined the school, will say what that data adds up to. And that doesn’t seem to bother most of the school board members.
Daniels, who tries to ask questions that need to be asked – and that thousands of viewers watching the televised school board members are probably screaming at their TV screens to be asked, but that are somehow considered too gauche for the other school board members to bring up – still lacks the confidence to just ask them, whatever the rest of the mildly-divorced-from-reality school board members think. In this case, he hemmed and hawed, starting off with a masterpiece of understatement – that there were “a couple of lingering questions” about Oak Ridge. Truer, or more obvious, words were never spoken.
Guilford County Schools Western Region Superintendent Angelo Kidd, who was fielding questions about Oak Ridge at the time, responded that he couldn’t really figure out what Daniels was asking. That made Kidd sound a little dim, even given that the question as posed wasn’t a model of clarity. Anyone in the audience could have translated Daniels’ questions for him: What caused hundreds of Oak Ridge students and teachers to report a wave of symptoms, has that cause been remedied, and when, and why, is Guilford County Schools moving students back into Oak Ridge Elementary School?
As Daniels asked more probing questions, Kidd covered himself in less and less glory, fumbling to reply. “We do know we’ve had issues in the building,” he said. “The complaints were building for years.”
It took $1.5 million, the relocation of 700 elementary students and the top experts in the country to determine that the school has issues? Say it ain’t so, Angelo!
Daniels continued doggedly, sharpening his questions. If there were objectively verifiable health conditions, wouldn’t someone have said what caused them? Is anyone willing to say mold is, or isn’t, to blame? Have outside doctors diagnosed any widespread disease among students that can be environmentally caused?
Bobadilla kicked in that the determination of the Guilford County Department of Public Health, made in July – before the school system spent hundreds of thousands more dollars investigating and supposedly fixing the school – that the symptoms were caused by poor ventilation, was the best information on the cause of the symptoms. That echoes what school officials have said privately, as they clearly think that at least some of the symptom reports were caused by the HVAC system, or by media-generated hysteria. But even the health department said the reported symptoms were statistically significant, and no one has yet explained why a virtually new school has had leaks, wet floors and strange sewage smells since even before its reopening.
Even that much of a hint was too much for Wilson, who focused on Daniels’ offhand statement that he knew epidemiology was not Bobadilla’s area of expertise. Wilson said that Daniels was correct in suggesting they had no expertise – her lawyerly way of blunting the liability risk of anything Bobadilla might blurt out. But Bobadilla wasn’t blurting.
The net result of what Bobadilla and Kidd wouldn’t say was that the school system is planning to send students back to Oak Ridge Elementary School in January or February, without hinting what was, or wasn’t, wrong with the school, to protect the school system from any lawsuits that might arise.
It’s hard to see that tactic working. Some Oak Ridge parents are enraged because they think there’s something wrong with the school and aren’t sure it has been fixed. Others, probably more, are enraged because their children have been crammed into ill-suited, cramped temporary quarters for months. All the parents are united in wanting something resembling closure on the issue, and are running out of patience with the school system. The reams of test data provide ammunition enough for lawsuits on either side, no matter what administrators and school board members do or don’t say.
School board member Darlene Garrett tried one last time to get an answer to the smoking-gun question. “Have we found any culprits so far?” she asked.
Wilson stepped in again, saying the subject wasn’t appropriate for open session. School board Chairman Alan Duncan told her to raise the question again in closed session, of which the school board had two that evening. “You ought to get an answer to that question,” he said.
Whatever the answer to that question, parents, teachers, students and taxpayers footing the bill for the Oak Ridge clean-up aren’t likely to hear it, at least until discovery ends in the school system’s lawsuit against Lyon Construction of King, North Carolina, or any future lawsuits. Lyon denies any wrongdoing in the construction of Oak Ridge, and says it is being made a scapegoat for the school board’s decisions.
Guilford County Schools is trying to play it both ways – downplaying any problems with the school, to limit its liability in parent lawsuits, and claiming major problems in the school’s construction, to win its suit against Lyon Construction. It’s an odd balancing act.
The school board also unanimously re-elected Duncan chairman, and school board member Amos Quick vice chairman, in what has to be the most yawn-inducing board reorganization every year in Guilford County. No board members nominated other candidates, and there was no discussion.
“We look forward to another year,” Duncan said. “And it’s going to be an adventurous one, our superintendent warns us.”
A letter to the NAA regarding an email they deleted without reading – please retract your amicus in the Abad case in Arizona – it is fraud by a political action committee, the National Apartment Association, that is furthering another fraud by another political action committee, the US Chamber of Commerce
Political Action Committee – NAA – files Amicus Brief in mold case (two infant deaths in mold filled apt – Wasatch Prop Mgmt) citing US Chamber/ACOEM ‘litigation defense report’ to disclaim health effects of indoor mold & limit financial risk for industry
“Changes in construction methods have caused US buildings to become perfect petri dishes for mold and bacteria to flourish when water is added. Instead of warning the public and teaching physicians that the buildings were causing illness; in 2003 the US Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, a think-tank, and a workers comp physician trade organization mass marketed an unscientific nonsequitor to the courts to disclaim the adverse health effects to stave off liability for financial stakeholders of moldy buildings. Although publicly exposed many times over the years, the deceit lingers in US courts to this very day.” Sharon Noonan Kramer
Information on Riverstone Residential knowingly exposing tenants to extreme amounts of mold toxins at Toxic Mold Infested Jefferson Lakes Apartments in Baton Rouge, Louisiana