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Health issues at aging Beachland concern parents

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of June 11, 2015)

Beachland Elementary School parents, who a couple of years ago successfully fought to save the school’s treasured oak hammock from being bulldozed, now are fighting for a healthy and safe building when their kids return in August to the barrier island’s only public school.

Complaints about the nearly 60-year-old structure include moldy carpets, unrepaired leaks causing water intrusion, rusty and broken fixtures, broken and rusted-out air conditioners, peeling paint, potential structural and electrical hazards and a general state of neglect and disrepair – problems on which parents pleaded for help from the Indian River County School Board Tuesday night.

Later this month, the Board is expected to vote on a construction plan for the school and on other budget-related items, so Beachland PTA leaders decided to rally the families via social media.

Beachland parents have spoken out previously about conditions at the school – which they claim are making students sick – but School District emails reveal that as of two weeks ago, no investigation was ever ordered in response to internal and external complaints.

Still, parents are hopeful their public pleas, coupled with pleas to the media to expose the sad physical state of this academically top-rated school, now will actually rattle the School Board into action.

PTA President Pat Blackburn – who says her fourth grader has gotten so sick from the school that he needs regular medication – distributed an announcement about Tuesday’s meeting, saying “Many of you are frustrated with the disrepair our school finds itself facing. Many of the air-conditioning units are very old and break down frequently. Plumbing and water drainage needs fixing ... Our carpets are 20 years old.”

Parents did get some action from school officials about rickety monkey bars in the playground, but instead of fixing or replacing them, the district’s solution was to remove them. 

Blackburn complains that now, kids have nothing to play on at recess. “The old, unsafe playground equipment is being removed and a large empty space is left with no plans for replacement,” she said.

The PTA at Beachland, as evidenced by its budget of more than $75,000 this past school year, is an active group that strives to raise funds for needed items not in the district budget. That money goes for computers and supplies, but parents expect the School Board to cover the basic need of providing a safe and healthy place for pupils to learn and for teachers to teach.

Among the comments on the PTA’s Facebook page was one by Beachland mom Heather Reeb. “I have a lot to say on the subject. Our kids get sick from the conditions.”

“The school board will be voting on many issues in the next few weeks that could directly affect the money and time given to Beachland,” Blackburn wrote. “Now is the time for us to stand up and let our voices be heard!” she concluded, giving the date, time and place of the meeting and urging parents to show up and bring their children along.

“They listen when parents speak up. We want the school board to see that we are not giving up on the hope to see our school refurbished!!!” Blackburn said.

Internal school district email correspondence obtained by Vero Beach 32963 shows an attitude by School District staff that hints of being more interested in protecting the district from legal action than in addressing the problems.

A member of the Beachland staff emailed higher-ups to document the presence of mold at the school and was chastised and told not to use the word “mold.” The email also reveals that the School District did not conduct an investigation of complaints of environmental hazards at the school – even though the specialized resources needed to do that were “on call.”

On May 28, a Beachland employee wrote to Director of Physical Plant John Earman and Plant Supervisor Jason Caldwell – with a copy to Principal Caroline Barker – suggesting a way to get old carpets out of the building at no cost to the School District.

“I have a FREE offer from ServiceMaster, see below, to remove the computer lab moldy carpeting and mold abatement. What do you think? Your Request for Proposals could NOT include removing the carpet and save a few bucks,” the employee wrote. “We are starting to break down and remove everything from the lab next Wednesday.”

To which Earman replied 34 minutes later: “Several issues come to mind: We have an environmental abatement company on call. It is extremely unprofessional to call something ‘moldy,’ please do not repeat that, it is a gross assumption.

“We have not reviewed ServiceMaster’s abatement and testing methods and if they are using a certified lab, Certified Industrial Hygienist, etc. This procedure costs $3,000+ and is admissible in court, if we are going to do an investigation, we will do it right,” Earman wrote.

Seven minutes later, the employee replied that he understood and was just relaying the offer, but he reiterated, “The furniture has mold on it that you can physically see, and the smell is recognizable. I realize that’s somewhat normal for Florida, and that there are different types of mold. I haven’t seen any black mold yet,” he said.

Earman subsequently agreed to come to look at the conditions that same day, and Blackburn said Earman since has been working with the Beachland community to put together a construction plan to replace broken air conditioners and other items.

“There are many areas of campus where the rooms smell moldy. One of those is the computer lab. When I went to check on our teacher one day, he was complaining of sinus and breathing difficulty. He said that he has to clean every day,” Blackburn said, noting visible mold on an equipment case. “I have also seen this same thing on desks and tables at a later time.”

The water damage is not just unsightly, but, if left unchecked, may even compromise the building. “When it rains, water flows down this beam. The wood is rotting. This looks to be a support beam in the roof that is over the picnic tables, just outside the cafeteria,” Blackburn said.

Parents have created a video slideshow detailing some examples of conditions at the school which can be viewed on the Beachland Elementary PTA Facebook page.