Alamance-Burlington school board members were upbraided Monday night for widespread mold contamination in ABSS facilities that community members and parents say has put the health of children and school employees at risk.
Several speakers who addressed the board characterized the school system’s ongoing reports of mold contamination as a result of years of neglect due to underfunding that had caused buildings to deteriorate; another explicitly accused the board of “intentional neglect” by raiding a portion of the federal Covid-19 stimulus funding that ABSS received in order to award bonuses to teachers.
Recent reports about mold contamination at numerous ABSS schools appear to have stoked widespread alarm.
The school board’s meeting room was packed to capacity – with many people in the audience donning face masks – and parents and community members spilling into an adjoining hallway in order to hear details about how the school system plans to remove the mold and perform air quality testing to ensure that schools are safe to return to once the new school year begins. ABSS is currently scheduled to start the new school year on Tuesday, September 5.
ABSS parent Brandy Whittaker told the board during public comments, “Shockingly the board recently stated that they were unaware that mold was in our schools; they even stated that they didn’t know until late July there was mold in our schools. Anyone in this community who’s been in a school within the last 24 months knows there’s mold in every single school.
anyone in the community knows there’s been a problem with mold in ABSS schools
“This is a problem of years of neglect. So this ‘shock’ is deeply concerning to me as a parent. These reports of mold have been consistently reported not only to this board but to public leaders for at least the last five years.”
– Brandy Whittaker
“This is a problem of years of neglect,” said Whittaker. “So this ‘shock’ is deeply concerning to me as a parent. These reports of mold have been consistently reported not only to this board but to public leaders for at least the last five years. There was time during the pandemic and the shutdowns to remediate these problems. In order to effectively tackle this issue, we need people on the school board who have a personal stake in this matter, individuals who have children attending our schools, parents who understand our children and the impact this is making on our community.”
It was stated later in the meeting that school board members Sandy Ellington-Graves, board chairman, Chuck Marsh, and Dr. Charles Parker have children in ABSS schools; and board members Dan Ingle and Donna Westbrooks have grandchildren in ABSS schools.
Choking back tears, Whittaker told the board, “We know when our children are sick; we know when our teachers are sick; we know what this is doing to our communities. When I look at this board, I don’t see a majority of parents…I don’t see [people] who have a dog in this fight. I’m a parent who has two very young children who are impacted daily by this issue. I have an immune-compromised child who can’t go to school.”
ABSS officials said during the meeting Monday night that, once the school year begins, medical waivers would be offered for individuals with health concerns that preclude them from being inside schools that haven’t been certified as being free of mold and/or other potential hazards. Teachers and other ABSS employees also have been given optional workdays for this week, the school system’s administrators said.
Ben Watkins, who has two students who attend A.O. Elementary School, said, “I work for the government. I’ve seen inaction when it happens…This is because of inaction. As a public leader myself, the term ‘I don’t know’ is never an answer I can give out. I really appreciate, Dr. Butler, you saying ‘we’re going back to school on Tuesday.’ I just want to make sure we continue to follow through with this.
school system inaction
“I’ve seen inaction when it happens…This is because of inaction.”
– Ben Watkins
“If you have to pull money from other projects, it is not ideal – I give you that 100 percent,” said Watkins. “But it’s like having a car with a busted engine, and you’re going to put new tires on it: congratulations, you’ve got the fanciest tires in the world – that car ain’t going anywhere.”
ABSS parent Tameka Harvey pointed out that she hasn’t heard anyone from ABSS say they were sorry for the problems that families are dealing with as a result of the delay in the school year.
ABSS needs to say “I’m sorry”; kids should stay home until it’s safe to return to school
“As a parent, we should not send them back until we know that that air quality is safe to send them back. I’m okay with my kids being home if they’re safe. Until you get the certified results that say our schools are safe for our kids to go into, I think it’s only fair they stay home. We have so many kids that deal with breathing issues and allergy issues.”
– Tameka Harvey
“It’s okay to say, ‘I’m sorry, and we’re going to get the job done,’” Harvey said during her public comments. “As a parent, we should not send them back until we know that that air quality is safe to send them back. I’m okay with my kids being home if they’re safe. Until you get the certified results that say our schools are safe for our kids to go into, I think it’s only fair they stay home. We have so many kids that deal with breathing issues and allergy issues. I bought so many allergy medications this past year for my kids that I’ve never had to give before. I think it’s only fair we make sure our kids are safe.”
Several school board members apologized for the way in which the mold situation has affected students and families later in the meeting Monday night; a couple of board members also took to social media on Tuesday to offer their apologies.
“I’ve always been told what assume means!” school board member Chuck Marsh posted on Facebook. “I assumed since I hadn’t heard anything about mold or mold remediation that our schools were in good shape! I had heard for years now from teacher friends that ABSS schools have had mold issues, but again, I assume it had been taken care of.”
Mold remediation had been performed at Broadview Middle and Cummings High schools in 2019, based on photographs of the work when it was underway that then-school board member and current county commissioner provided this week to The Alamance News. Those repairs were made as part of a $2.3 million contract with Baker Roofing of Raleigh that school board members approved on June 13, 2018, which was funded, in part, from proceeds of a legal settlement due to faulty roofing materials manufactured by Dow Roofing Systems.
ABSS parent Tori Mitchell told the board during public comments, “You have said numerous times during this meeting, ‘let’s stay with policy,’” an apparent reference to an earlier remark by school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves, who pointed out that the board has a policy regarding public comments that prohibits audience members from “vocalizing,” snapping, clapping, or making any other noises while speakers are at the podium.
“Looking at policy with the General Statutes of the state of North Carolina, corrective action policy is that the principal or administrative head of public schools shall immediately take action in correcting [facility] conditions,” Mitchell said.
“Looking back at inspection reports, I went all the way back to 1999, and it’s been numbers of reports of mold, leaking roofs, ceilings, even reports up until [recently]. That goes to show that the issue, whether it was moisture or whatever, became a problem by constant neglect. I don’t know who’s at fault, but accountability is something that the board should take on – being accountable and saying you’re sorry for our kids being put into that environment”
– Tori Mitchell
“Looking back at inspection reports,” Mitchell continued, “I went all the way back to 1999, and it’s been numbers of reports of mold, leaking roofs, ceilings, even reports up until [recently]. That goes to show that the issue, whether it was moisture or whatever, became a problem by constant neglect. I don’t know who’s at fault, but accountability is something that the board should take on – being accountable and saying you’re sorry for our kids being put into that environment.
“I have a child that was born with undeveloped lungs, and since then she’s developed allergies; she’s been diagnosed with a learning disability,” Mitchell said. “Is it a possibility that it could be a mold problem? Yes. Will there be testing sites to test our kids to see if there [has] been prolonged exposure to mold? Is there any type of disabilities that our kids have, so that we can know what to do as parents? It causes cognitive issues, all different types of issues. Immediate action wasn’t taken because these reports date back to so long ago.
Mitchell told the board, “As a community, you guys are held responsible because you guys were elected; you were entrusted by the community to take care of our kids. And policy first is to ensure the safety of all kids, and that has not been held up by anyone: the commissioners that [have] been elected and the school board that has been elected.
“I sat in here last year – it was a budget meeting. And for the HVAC systems that were supposed to be updated, you chose to take the funding [from the three federal Covid stimulus relief packages] and you chose to give bonuses to teachers. That was intentional neglect, because the problems were already there.”
– Tori Mitchell
“I sat in here last year – it was a budget meeting,” Mitchell recalled Monday night. “And for the HVAC systems that were supposed to be updated, you chose to take the funding [from the three federal Covid stimulus relief packages] and you chose to give bonuses to teachers. That was intentional neglect, because the problems were already there.”
Seneca Rogers of Graham, who previously ran twice for school board, said Monday night that he’s concerned that funds are having to be cobbled together in order to pay for contracts related to mold remediation and air quality testing.
“Education, safe learning environments, students, teachers, school staff, and families must always be the number one priority when we’re talking about public education and taking care of our community,” Rogers said Monday night. “Those who have been in charge of taking care of our schools need to make sure they continue to make that a priority and not just a talking point when it’s time to get elected.”
Community member Aletha McKenzie told the board Monday night, “It’s not an easy job I know. I’ve seen a whole bunch of kids raised, through a rich wonderful life as a nurse. I love to see everyone thrive. We can all thrive if these beautiful people [she said, pointing to school board members] who have been given the opportunity by God to do the right thing to people who need your help. If you will do that, we will all be fine.”
Eastern High School teacher Medora Burke-Scoll explained during public comments Monday night that, in order for staff to be excused from work this week (while mold remediation and air quality testing are underway), they are required to obtain a doctor’s note, furnish that to the school administration, which then must submit it to the central office.
Burke-Scoll went on to urge the board to fill the vacant seat created by Patsy Simpson’s resignation in April of this year. She opined that Simpson’s service on the board had given people in the community confidence “that they were being heard by someone with a position of authority.
“Just because the public is asking for representation that doesn’t look like you, or they want someone with a different lived experience than you have had, doesn’t mean the public is calling you racist, or that you can’t speak for all children,” Burke-Scoll said during her public comments. “You’re, in fact, mandated to fill this position.” She also noted that, while white schools accounted for 37 percent of all students enrolled in ABSS last year, “The entire board at this juncture [is] white.”
Lisa Wolfe told the board Monday night that her husband, who teaches at Turrentine, returned at the beginning of the last school year, in August 2022, to find “two inches of mold” stretching the length of the windowsill in her husband’s classroom; and that mold had been found in a classroom at Williams High School, where her son is a sophomore.
“Accountability, does it go to the school board, county commissioners, to the contracted services who are responsible for cleaning the school?” Wolfe asked. “One group has to be accountable to the other group, and that communication has to be civil and just to people like us.”
After communicating back-and-forth with school board member Ryan Bowden, the mold in her husband’s classroom got fixed, Wolfe said, “but now it’s back [and] the root cause is not being addressed.”