Is mold a problem in HISD schools?

November 30, 2007 10:10:16 AM PST
The district says it could be months before students get back to Key Middle School. HISD still can't find out what's wrong there, and it appears the mold people point to is far worse at many other schools.We found several more schools with problems and a shortcoming the district owns up to.

By the time Key Middle School students moved out of their school on September 26, test after test by the district and outside health experts found nothing immediately wrong. And now, two and a half weeks later, there's still no answer.

"I don't know exactly what the problem is," said HISD Maintenance Manager Robert Robertson.

Test results and district documents do show there was mold in five classrooms at Key. The first custodians got sick during the cleaning process, possibly from bleach fumes. But teachers didn't start getting sick until after the mold was cleaned up.

All the Centers for Disease Control could find was a "damp building," a somewhat hard to define term that basically means the walls and floors and air inside the building are too humid, allowing bacteria to grow.

"It's very frustrating because of the fact that we want our campus back," said Key Middle School parent Gloria Jackson.

While it's left HISD's experts awfully confused, they do admit more maintenance at Key would've helped.

"We had maintenance issues with our HVAC system that needed to be fixed," said Robertson.

Key Middle School isn't unique at all when it comes to maintenance or mold. We dug into HISD mold reports and found 18 schools complaining about mold this school year; some small problems, some with huge mold issues. Chatham elementary had a dozen classrooms that had to be professionally cleaned from mold.

In report after report on mold, the same problem emerges. Air conditioners need more maintenance and it doesn't always appear it's getting done. Most noticeably at Chatham elementary school, where a district report states "the mold situation...has grown exponentially since...December 2006. Risk management has recommended in several previous investigations that the air conditioners be adjusted, but the problem still persists" and "It is believed units are not being properly maintained and operated."

"I want to have the confidence that my crews are doing what they're supposed to be doing," said Robertson.

But Robertson, the head of HISD's maintenance division, admits his confidence level in the district's maintenance is as high as it should be.

"I am not where I want to be," said Robertson.

"How so?" we asked.

"I want to be able to sleep at night knowing it's been done," he said.

And while HISD is coming up with a plan to fix Key, they're not exactly certain what needs to be done yet. And they aren't certain it can be finished by January.

It doesn't make it any easier for parents to ever send their kids back to the allegedly sick school they left behind.

"Not if it's not a safe place," said parent Maria Anna Martinez. "They need to make it a safe place."

A federal report is due soon, which should clear up some of the causes of all of this. In the meantime, HISD is doing maintenance on some of the air conditioners and trying to dry Key Middle School out.

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