‘No reason’ to move students from Walton as PGCPS tackles air quality issues

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: November 1, 2019 | 12:30 p.m. 

School board, supervisors’ full boards meet at Prince George High School

PRINCE GEORGE – A week after members of the Prince George School Board opening stated to attendees of their monthly meeting that county supervisors had “repeatedly shunned and denied” requests for a joint meeting of both governing bodies, the two entities would come together last Thursday for their first combined meeting in roughly two years to discuss the present challenges at Walton Elementary and what is being done in the short-term to keep students and staff safe.

While drawing a smaller audience than what was on hand for this month’s school board meeting and last week’s board of supervisors meeting, a group of Walton Elementary School parents, teachers, and other community members, including those running for local office in the coming election joined both boards at Prince George High School for an update on efforts to address air quality issues at the school and how the school division is addressing issues.

Throughout 2019, the school, which dates back to the 1960s has been the subject of a series of cleaning and other remediation efforts after mold was discovered in some classrooms in the aging facility which, according to parents to teachers, has resulted in missed days from the school and illnesses from the contaminants. This issue, coupled with the school’s age and design as an open-campus school has been a driving force for those wishing to have a new elementary school, expected to be Walton’s replacement, constructed as soon as possible to expedite efforts to move students and staff out of the aging building.

In the short-term, just days before their joint meeting, the county board of supervisors gave the school board the green light to move forward with the purchase of three trailers, known as educational cottages, that will serve as six classrooms to provide additional space at the school as, when a classroom is identified as having an air quality issues, that room’s cohort of students is moved to an alternate location to allow for remediation and re-testing before the classroom is allowed to resume use.

 Both the Prince George School Board and Board of Supervisors met last Thursday jointly for the first time in roughly two years to discuss ongoing air quality issues at Walton Elementary School and what is being done in the short-term and going forward to keep students and staff at the school safe. (Michael Campbell)

According to the school division, those trailers will cost roughly $450,000 and will be on-site and in use at Walton Elementary in the next six to eight weeks. In terms of funding, once annual audits are completed and carryover funding for the school division is identified, currently estimated at around $640,000, the county is expected to re-allocate the trailers’ costs to the school division.

Additionally, the county is expected to hold a public hearing to consider re-purposing a portion of the funds borrowed during Prince George’s debt issuance in the spring to help pay for the purchase of six additional trailers, which are part of a larger request from the school system within the county’s capital improvement plan and separate from the six trailers PGCPS is in the process of acquiring.

While the expected cost of the trailers will likely be below the one percent of the county’s budget threshold that requires a public hearing, approximately $1.2 million, that hearing would need to be held due to funds from the borrowing being used on a project that was not listed at the time of the borrowing’s public hearing. In March, at the time of the debt issuance, Doug Sbertoli, the county’s bond attorney addressed the topic as supervisors weighed the merits of some projects being funding through borrowing.

“You can utilize the funds across the spectrum of what has been noticed … but, if it is an entirely new project that wasn’t identified in the public hearing notice, then, in order to open up that opportunity to finance that project, a public hearing would need to be held,” Sbertoli said at the time. “You are limited to the universe of identified projects to be financed at this point. You can eliminate a project or add a project but, you have to go through the public hearing process if that project is entirely new and [was] not identified in the previous notice.”

As she has done throughout October, Prince George Schools Superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff walked through a presentation that broke down the issues that have, as described by multiple school board members, become “chronic” as they fight to get a handle on what is causing multiple air quality issues at Walton Elementary School.

According to the superintendent, since January, when the air quality issues reportedly first began at the school, Walton has had 14 of its 67 classrooms have some form of “air quality concern,” nearly a quarter of the school’s classrooms. Those rooms were closed as students and staff were moved to alternate locations to allow for remediation and re-testing. In addition, of those problem rooms, five had to be remediated twice, with Pennycuff stressing that “this indicated that 93 percent of the building either had no air quality concerns or were no longer a concern after one remediation.”

Since January, Pennycuff said the school has undergone a number of different activities to address the air quality issues, ranging from deep cleanings, bumping up the number of custodial staff at the school, cleaning the HVAC duct work in every room, jacketing and sealing the school’s duct work on the roof, along with regular testing and the installation of dehumidifiers and air scrubbers, when needed. Recently, after elevated CO2 levels were detected in some rooms, CO2 monitors were purchased and installed in a number of the school’s rooms and the fans within Walton’s HVAC system have been set to run continuously to allow more fresh air into the system.

During her presentation, Chadwick Bowman with The EI Group, the school division’s environmental testing contractor, explained the rooms that had been identified as having elevated CO2 levels do not need to be evacuated as CO2 at the levels found “would not be an immediate health concern, but rather an indicator that the HVAC system should be checked and repaired/modified as needed to allow for adequate fresh air to the space.”

Bowman added, in regards to the detection of mold spores in the gym area of the school, the myxomycetes levels found in the building “may be related to something brought in by the kids” as it is “common in decaying plant matter,” such as mulch and dirt.

“This could simply be a case of muddy shoes or something else going on in this space, like the water-stained ceiling tiles, may be contributing to the count,” he said, noting there “is not any permissible exposure levels to mold … just the comparative guideline of inside versus outside” and there likely will never be such permissible levels as Bowman stressed mold is classified as an allergen and affects different people in different ways.

Bowman continued, “Prince George County Public Schools has gone above and beyond what is required as there are only guidelines and no set requirements. There is absolutely no reason to move children out of Walton Elementary School based on our findings. The school division is effectively addressing the needs as they arise.”

According to school board member Chris Johnson, who joined engineers and school officials on Walton’s network of roof structures, one of the building’s challenges is tied to the installation of air conditioning on a building that wasn’t designed for the amenity when it was built in the 1960s, along with breezeways that were closed to create classrooms, which is now creating a challenge in finding a balance between dehumidification and keeping rooms cooled.

A report from Moseley Architects is expected in the next few weeks that will detail their findings and provide several options in terms of remediation based on how long they expect to continue to use the building as discussions surrounding a new facility remain ongoing.

 While a few dozen people attended last Thursday’s special meeting at Prince George High School of the school board and board of supervisors, including Walton teachers, parents, and others, the turnout was lower than this month’s school board meeting and last week’s board of supervisors meeting. (Michael Campbell)

As efforts to find a cause of the school’s air quality issues continues, Pennycuff stressed their efforts are centered on keeping students and teachers safe within Walton Elementary.

“We have set our own bar so that it is in a place where we can feel confident we are keeping our children safe,” she said. “We know that the allergens will affect children differently so, that is why we are looking at having the additional classroom space for those who are significantly affected. I have learned that it is a balance of having the fresh air intake and exchange and the dehumidification. We know our next steps for Moseley is to provide a more in-depth study.”

That study will also be shared with the county board of supervisors after the school board reviews it upon completion sometime this month. Following their first joint meeting in over two years, supervisors chairman Donald Hunter talked about why it was important for both boards to be able to meet and hear information as full boards, as opposed to chair-vice-chairman meetings.

“It is important for us to hear it at the same time so a question asked by one may not be understood by another is clarified so we are all singing off the same sheet of music, so to speak,” he remarked. “Even though it may not seem to some that it was a valuable meeting, I think the value in this meeting was to show the unity of the boards and that is what it is all about, about what is best for Prince George County.”

Hunter continued, “It was great to hear complimentary comments from the professionals that talked about what has been done and how they are up to speed, and the cleanliness [of the school], not that I thought anything different. Also, the fact that the HVAC that was put in years after it was retrofitted to a school that wasn’t made to have air conditioning, so a lot was done to make it a workable solution and there are a lot of things that need to be done to bring it up to speed so it can be the best it can be for now until we can get the new school built.”

For school board chairman Robert Cox, Jr., last Thursday’s meeting was about informing the public about the status of the school and plans to address Walton’s challenges going forward, even though some expressed frustration feeling as if some questions weren’t answered or had trouble hearing as some speakers failed to utilize the microphones, making it difficult for some to hear their remarks.

“We wanted to get it out to the public, even though we didn’t have a big turnout from the public, but we wanted to present it in front of the board of supervisors so they understand where we are at and what we are dealing with so there are no surprises when it is coming down the road,” he remarked. “Everything is out now and we hope to get the report back in two weeks, hopefully less, then we will review it and present it to them again, so we can get a plan together and get moving.”

The chairman said, depending on the amount of work recommended and the speed at which is can be done, much of it could be completed by the time students return to classes after winter break.

When asked, both Cox and Hunter said they would be interested in holding future joint meetings of both boards.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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