Jan. 28, 2006 – Concerns over school closings due to unhealthy indoor air quality sparked a couple of emotional meetings and a protest march on St. Croix in recent days.
Nowhere to be seen was Terrence Joseph, insular superintendent of schools for the St. Croix District. Joseph, who some parents hold responsible for the schools' abysmal conditions, was even subpoenaed to appear at a school board meeting on Friday night but did not show up. Joseph, who is set to retire next week, was not at his office either when about 50 marchers appeared there Friday.
Department of Education Commissioner Noreen Michael did attend a school board meeting on Saturday afternoon to discuss other issues. Her voice was hoarse and she coughed often. She said she had been sick for several days. Parents of students at Lew Muckle Elementary School were upset that Michael did not attend an emergency PTA meeting at that school Thursday night.
Lew Muckle closed Monday and will not open for two weeks — following analysis of the school's mold problem and decontamination of all classrooms.
The Ricardo Richards Elementary School closed Tuesday due to an infestation of cow-itch, a plant which can cause intense skin irritation. It is scheduled to open early next week. The John H. Woodson Junior High School has been closed since September because of mold and related issues.
Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville attended the Thursday night PTA meeting. He said that parents were "angry and rightfully so." Evidently, the Education Department had results from tests showing a high concentration of mold spores in the air but did not immediately release that information to teachers and students.
Parents at the meeting complained of their youngsters having skin rashes and breathing problems.
Figueroa-Serville said the parents were very mad at senators, too. He said, "They called us every name, but ," trailing off before completing the sentence.
Sen. Ronald Russell opened the Senate Rules Committee Friday morning saying that the senators were in sympathy with the parents. He said that he would have joined them in their march that morning, if Friday's meeting had not been scheduled.
Senate President Lorraine Berry said that those calling for heads to roll at the Department of Education were wrong. She said the system was dysfunctional, that there was nothing wrong with the people in charge.
Patricia Oliver, a librarian at St. Croix Educational Complex, said she has been trying to draw school officials' attention to the problems of indoor air quality at the schools since 1989.
She testified Saturday, the second day of the school board meeting on St. Croix. She said that the department needed people trained in how to prevent the mold problem and a regular maintenance program. She said, "None of that is happening now."
She said that mold was a naturally occurring phenomenon when temperature and humidity were high. Leaking roofs that allow ceilings to remain damp contribute to problems in the schools. She was able to point to a large patch of mold growing in the ceiling of the Curriculum Center building where the meeting was being held.
Board President Judith Gomez said, "The board of education does not have the power to go in and fix problems at schools."
According to a press release sent Tuesday by the Education Department, Environmental Concepts and Safety Solution Concepts had begun working on the decontamination. A special meeting for the parents of Lew Muckle students is scheduled Tuesday in the school's cafeteria to discuss how the students would make up their assignments.
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