Ed board chief: Assigning blame for mold may be ‘a futile exercise’
STAMFORD - The data Board of Education President Andy George has presented to the Board of Finance was not meant to tell the story of how school buildings have deteriorated to such a state that mold has taken hold.
It just offers hints.
But that may have to satisfy the finance board, whose members are among the elected officials, parents and citizens clamoring for a cause of the mold problem, which closed an elementary school, disrupts classrooms districtwide, and drives a potential tax increase that could amount to 4.4 percent come July 1.
“Why hasn’t anyone been held accountable for something that looks like an obvious failure of management?” Board of Finance member Kieran Ryan asked George last week, when the school board chief was updating finance officials on cleanup and repairs. “I don’t know if there was mismanagement, but can we get an answer for the constituents who keep asking why no one is held accountable?”
George has offered data from a 2009 assessment by EMG Engineering & Environmental Consulting Services that recommended the school district spend an average of nearly $20 million a year to maintain and repair buildings over the past decade.
But each year the district spent about a quarter of that.
A lot of work went undone. Last summer, when rain fell in record amounts, water made its way into leaky structures, and mold bloomed.
At Westover, the elementary school closed for repairs so far estimated to cost $25 million, the report called for several projects related to mold and water intrusion.
It recommended, for example, that the district spend $3,300 on a mold study; $9,100 on a study of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system; $8,200 on a review by a structural engineer; $241,900 on stabilizing the slab and “minor foundation repair”; $44,200 on roof work; $9,500 on gutter replacement; $242,000 on replacing rooftop heating and cooling units; $81,100 on installing air conditioning; and $381,500 on replacing a ventilator.
Most of those things have been identified as projects for Westover in 2019.
“The EMG report was a picture of a moment in time,” George said. “Even though a report comes out and says, ‘Here are some issues as of 2009,’ new priorities arise.”
After the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, for example, “there was an increase in the amount spent on security measures,” George said.
He did not provide information for capital expenditures during the first five years following the 2009 assessment. But it may not have been much, as the assessment was conducted shortly after the Great Recession hit, George said.
“In the years leading up to the EMG report, the amount of capital spending was much larger, and the operating budgets were going up 4 percent to 5 percent,” he said. “Then the economy tanked in 2008-09, and the amounts got cut in half. Since then the operating budget has been going up about 2.3 percent and the capital budgets went to roughly the $5 million-a-year mark.”
In the second five years after the assessment, Westover was not slated for any capital projects, according to a list provide by George. The school, however, may have benefited from districtwide work done during that time — $3.16 million spent on technology equipment, for example, or $2.82 spent on removing asbestos.
“No sooner does a report get issued than other things happen,” George said. “At Stamford High School, bricks were falling off the façade.”
The largest total capital expenditure between 2015 and 2019, according to his figures, was $3.65 million to fix Stamford High, one of the oldest buildings in the district.
But looking at capital expenditures alone doesn’t tell the full picture of maintenance work cost, George said.
“You would have to take into account the actual amounts spent on repairs and maintenance, add in salaries for custodians, including overtime, but only for maintenance work, not the clean-up work they do every day. You would also have to add in the salaries and overtime for the trades workers,” George said. “It’s very difficult to do.”
He understands that people want accountability, George said, but “it may end up a futile exercise.”
“Some people want to blame the custodians — didn’t they see the mold? Most likely they put in work orders … but if the funds were not there, the staffing was not there, it wouldn’t have gotten done,” he said. “You can’t look at any one group, in my mind, and say that’s why this happened.”
Superintendent Earl Kim has said the system was doing what it does — budgets are cut to keep the city within a responsible debt limit, and to not overburden taxpayers.
“It takes tax money to do the preventive maintenance, and if people don’t want taxes to go up, preventive maintenance is often what gets reduced,” he said. “I think a review will find that other priorities were put in front of properly maintaining buildings, and those weren’t necessarily the wrong decisions at the time.”
It’s good, he said, that elected boards want to examine capital requests and allocations and learn “why gutters weren’t always cleaned and windows weren’t always re-caulked.”
But when “the Stamford High soccer field was condemned, we took care of the immediate need, and nobody was looking at the mold sitting on the underside of a wall covering.”