By Akilah Johnson and Denise-Marie Balona, Sun Sentinel
At Croissant Park Elementary in Fort Lauderdale, some of the classrooms were so humid and sticky, they created the perfect breeding ground for mushrooms that eventually grew from the floor tiles.
When custodians went to remove them in 2009, they discovered a mass of fleas living in the fungus below.
South Florida’s steamy climate makes fighting mold and mildew a never-ending battle. In the past 2 1/2 years, the Broward County School District handled 432 indoor-air complaints for problems ranging from 30 pounds of grits destroyed by mold, to water leaks, to students, teachers and office workers suffering mold-related allergies, sinus problems and rashes.
But that’s a big improvement over seven years ago, when a statewide grand jury blasted the Broward School District over its inability to curb rampant mold in scores of schools, and its lack of urgency in responding to complaints of illness by students and staffers.
Today, the district uses a two-pronged approach to combat mold that has received two national awards of excellence from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It involves identifying minor issues before they balloon as well as quickly responding to events when they do.
“A quality program is not the absence of issues,” said Jeff Moquin, executive director of support operations at Broward Schools. “That’s a misconception. Pipes burst. Water goes everywhere. Mold goes everywhere.”
Among the reported problems the district has dealt with from July 2008 to October 2010 are:
Lloyd Estates Elementary in Oakland Park: Mold was found on toys and desks, rust appeared on scissors and ceilings, and water-stained and rodent-chewed cardboard boxes were found in a pre-school classroom in August 2008. The year before, the room sat vacant because of a malfunctioning air-conditioner, causing mold and mildew issues.
Bethune Elementary in Hollywood: Strange smells were reported and mold was found in closets, classrooms and hallways, resulting in an itchy and ill staff, in May, August and October 2008. At times, the air-conditioner issues caused slightly elevated carbon dioxide levels.
Cypress Bay High in Weston: Three teachers suffered health issues, which doctors verified, caused by their portable classrooms in March of 2009.
Martin Luther King Elementary in Fort Lauderdale: A leaking air conditioning pipe caused mold and high levels of humidity in the cafeteria area in October 2008. The school had similar problems in 2005 and 2007.
Charles Drew Elementary in Pompano Beach: Water damaged a sink backsplash and stained ceiling tiles, and resulted in a musty smelling classroom in May 2008.
Moquin, who worked for the district when the grand jury issued its scathing report in 2003, admits the system had “a Big Brother, we know what we’re doing” mentality back then that didn’t fully take into account the community’s concerns.
In its report, the grand jury recommended 31 improvements that included remediating entire schools with mold problems, not pieces and parts; identifying and verifying problems at schools and informing the public about how each school is being cleaned. The jury also slammed the district for reusing architectural designs before anyone knew if they had flaws and using design features like cupolas that made buildings attractive but leaked and added nothing to the functionality.
Broward officials said they voluntarily addressed most of the recommendations before the report was issued and the rest afterward.
Moquin said the district now has a system to deal with a crisis as well as help keep small things from becoming full-blown catastrophes. More importantly, he said, the district’s attitude toward indoor air quality has improved.
He points to the district’s lackluster response to issues at Country Isles and Riverside elementaries, which helped spark the grand jury investigation. Riverside opened in the mid-’80s with 41 roof leaks and the moisture problem was so bad electrical outlets didn’t work.
Anthony Aliseo, then a 6-year-old student at Riverside, suffered headaches, pressure between his eyes, labored breathing and occasionally vomited in class. His mother, Cara Aliseo, said mold caused him to endure more than 70 allergy shots, two CAT scans and two surgeries to drain his sinuses.
She moved Anthony to another school and says his health problems vanished. But her fight with the district did not. She and a small group of parents fought to have the school repaired and procedures implemented, testifying before the grand jury and suing the district.
Anthony is now “a healthy 15-year-old who just got his driving permit and plays the drums,” she said.
Broward County School District district has since spent millions of dollars on repairs and more than 200 of its schools use the EPA “Tools for Schools” program to help them to identify, correct and prevent indoor air quality problems.
In Broward County, school staff are trained in autumn to maintain healthy indoor environments and fill out an online, multiple-choice survey in the winter that discusses cleanliness, temperature, humidity levels and where mold and mildew growth have been seen.
Each complaint is triaged. Problems are corrected immediately, some by school custodians, others by maintenance workers.
In the spring, an assessment team visits each school to validate the survey complaints and to make sure they are taken care of.
“By the time [students and staff] come back next school year, all these things should be fixed,” Moquin said, noting the exception would be “large-scale projects requiring design and construction work.”
The district expects to have all of its more than 230 campuses and administrative buildings — about 14,000 classrooms and more than 37,700 million square feet — using the program by next year.
“This is one of the few things since I’ve been here where we’ve taken lemons and made lemonade,” Moquin said. “There is a huge emotional issue associated with this. You have to manage that issue along with the maintenance issue.”
Mold problems are an issue in other districts as well. During the 2009-10 school year, administrators in Palm Beach County schools handled 977 maintenance work orders to address indoor-air quality problems ranging from “sewer odors” to high humidity to water leaks. The district there has also won EPA recognition for its pro-active response to addressing mold issues.
Some air quality problems require easy fixes by school custodians, such as improved dusting and cleaning. Others, such as replacing ceiling tiles or carpet, require district maintenance staff. Most of the district’s work orders are for air-conditioning repairs.
Bernie Kemp, president of the Broward County Council of PTAs/PTSA, said he hasn’t heard any concerns about the indoor air-quality of schools from the council’s 45,000 members.
“I remember it was a major issue and it was a major concern, but I think the district, in my view, did a major overhaul in going into these schools and trying to resolve these problems,” Kemp said. “You get isolated incidents, but nothing major.”
Despite the improvements in Broward, a number of the grand jury’s recommendations for statewide changes never happened.
As a result, problems persist in Central Florida, where a haphazard approach exists from school district to school district. An Orlando Sentinel investigation found moldy classrooms and other indoor air-quality issues which had sparked thousands of complaints over the past three years from teachers and students. In some cases, mold led to the wholesale evacuation of children from classrooms.
Richard J. Shaughnessy, director of The University of Tulsa Indoor Air Program and one of America’s foremost air-quality experts, said the situation might not change statewide unless the public pushes the issue.
“It has to start,” Shaughnessy said, “with parents becoming involved and demanding that schools address these types of problems across the country.”
• John P. Lapotaire, CIEC
• Certified Indoor Environmental Consultant
• Microshield Environmental Services, LLC