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Posted on Fri, Feb. 14, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Mold in schools a festering problem
More bad news for parents, staff at Country Isles, Riverside elementaries

Parents and teachers at Country Isles and Riverside elementary schools got more bad news in their ongoing battle against mold and mildew.

At Riverside Elementary in Coral Springs, parents and staff around the school buzzed angrily over recent tests that found mold within the school's walls, including the cafeteria, hallways and several classrooms. More than $2.5 million has been spent on the cleanup there. A meeting is set for Saturday.

And about two dozen parents and teachers at Country Isles in Weston learned Thursday that the school's media center -- off-limits since August -- still can't open because two rooms recently failed air-quality tests.

''I understand we've lost credibility,'' said Broward Schools Superintendent Frank Till during Thursday's tense PTA meeting at Country Isles.

''You've lost integrity with your audience,'' parent Rich Murphy shot back. ``The only way you can gain that back is through action. And the action, so far, has been sporadic at best.''

Last month, Till and his staff told parents they were hustling to open the media center as soon as possible. Maintenance and construction crews made progress: the walls are now freshly painted, books line the shelves, and shiny computers hum on the tables.

But the media center failed air-quality inspection tests because the room was not cleaned properly, school construction chief Tom Calhoun said. He said the center should be ready for students Wednesday morning.

Still, more work remains to be done throughout the school.

Calhoun told parents to expect cleaning of the air conditioning system to continue through March. Maintenance crews also will search for and destroy any mold in the school's classroom walls over spring and summer vacation, Calhoun said.

That process -- rooting out ''encapsulated'' mold in the walls -- already is starting at Riverside Elementary. A certified hygienist who took approximately 450 samples from inside the walls in five of the school's buildings found numerous areas with elevated concentrations of mold spores.

District officials blamed the mold on water intrusion that occurred prior to the recent repairs. They said that since the mold was found within the walls, it did not adversely affect the health and safety of the areas being occupied by students or staff.

Outraged parents were unconvinced.

''They keep trying to paint over the problems,'' Riverside parent Michael Oliver said. ``We don't trust any of them anymore.''

Broward construction officials have been warned repeatedly that the district's clean-up projects weren't fully eradicating the fungus.

Building inspector M.L. Rouco repeatedly flunked the work at Country Isles and Riverside last summer and fall, saying mold and mildew hadn't fully been cleaned before new drywall and insulation were installed.

Her actions angered school officials, who said she was acting outside her authority by critiquing the quality of work -- not whether it met code.

Last month, Rouco was moved into a desk job. She filed an injunction against the school district, and a Broward Circuit judge is expected to rule that she can return to inspections if she passes health tests.

Both Country Isles, 2300 Country Isles Rd., and Riverside Elementary almost missed the opening date in August because of cleanup delays. School district officials hustled and the two schools opened on time, but large areas were off-limits.

The two schools have been plagued with mold and mildew since they opened. Country Isles and Riverside are among five schools designed in the late 1980s by the defunct firm Miller, Meier, Kenyon and Cooper of Fort Lauderdale. The Broward State Attorney's Office recently sent its investigation of the district's construction department and its mold and mildew cleanup to a grand jury.

Country Isles parents said they want school district officials to continue testing at their school. Many say they are not confident the school will pass -- despite its new roof and the extensive work carried out over the past few months.

Several commented that classrooms have the basement smell often associated with mold and mildew.

''Parents and teachers are frustrated with the whole thing,'' parent Beth Murphy said. ``They don't know what to do.''

Till said he was optimistic the problems soon would be resolved.

''Next time I come to this school, I'm reading to the kids,'' Till said. ``It'll be positive.''

Herald staff writer Steve Harrison contributed to this report.

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