Student Well-Being

Mold Fears

By Joetta L. Sack — November 19, 2003 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 11 min read

Corrected: Clarification: This story should have stated that Susan Burke returned to her job as school nurse for Lower Pottsgrove Elementary School after her lawsuit with the district was settled and after the school moved to a new facility.

One Pennsylvania school building illustrates a national debate about how to confront the perceived health hazards of mold in schools.

The 1930s, red-brick schoolhouse that sits on a hill outside this quaint Colonial town hardly merits a second glance. But three years ago, it became the focus of a fierce community debate that is still simmering.

Now, depending on whom you ask, the former Lower Pottsgrove Elementary School building could be:

  • A haven for toxic mold that endangered the health of students and teachers;
  • A legal and public relations nightmare for district administrators, but not not a true hazard; or
  • A blessing.

Located about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Pottstown has streets filled with stately Dutch Colonial houses, and stone barns dot the surrounding farming community. All the picturesque charm, though, is offset by a startling backdrop: two cooling towers for a nuclear-power plant that loom above gently rolling hills.

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Read the accompanying story, “Increasing Numbers of Schools Are Grappling With Mold Problems.”

Because of that nuclear plant, along with the presence of local chemical companies and a landfill, residents in this rural but fast-growing area have a heightened sensitivity toward potential health hazards.

So when elevated levels of mold were discovered in the school’s carpeting and ceilings three years ago, the administrators of the 3,400-student Lower Pottsgrove School District found themselves facing a fearful, outspoken community that wanted answers.

The situation “blew up into something that was too big, too fast to control,” Superintendent Sharon Nalbone Richardson says.

Some Lower Pottsgrove Elementary teachers say that beginning in 1999, they noticed a sharp rise in such problems as bloody noses, lethargy, headaches, colds, sinus ailments, and irritated eyes among students and teachers. For some students and teachers, the symptoms seemed to ease when they were away from the school building during weekends and holidays.

Kathy Baker, the president of the Pottsgrove Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the National Education Association, keeps in her legal files a sealed ziplock bag containing paper towels saturated with a filmy black substance. She says it’s dust from mold that she wiped off the back of a computer before officials moved children out of the building after the 2000-01 school year.

Kathy Baker and Wendy Bonekemper

Mold Trackers: Kathy Baker, standing, the former president of the local teachers’ union, and Wendy Bonekemper, a 5th grade teacher in the district, documented the health complaints of students and teachers at Lower Pottsgrove Elementary School.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard/Education Week

Baker says the first time she was asked by teachers to survey the building, she saw a long, purplish-black strip of mold running the length of the basement cafeteria. She says she and other teachers began examining ceiling tiles that showed water spots and found evidence of mold in the ceiling.

The teachers called the Montgomery County, Pa., health department to investigate, and those officials, along with an independent environmental consultant later hired by the district, found that the 21-year-old orange carpeting that covered most of the school’s floors was infested with mold.

What’s more, those investigators discovered, the school’s ventilation system was carrying dangerous particles of fiberglass and other contaminants from its ducts, and parts of the building lacked adequate ventilation. They handed off a list of recommendations to the school district that included removing the carpet and overhauling the ventilation system.

In the summer of 2000, the district shut down the school and spent more than $600,000 to remove the carpet and replace it with shiny vinyl flooring. It chose to encapsulate, rather than replace, the ventilation system. Those costs put a sizable dent in the reserves of the district’s $35 million budget.

But some teachers say that after they moved back into the building in October 2000, the health problems persisted. And just a few weeks after staff members and students returned, 1,700 books in the library, a room that had been declared safe, were found to be infested with mold.

The teachers’ union, which believed that the district should have paid for a more extensive overhaul of the school’s ventilation system, demanded that more testing be done. The district, which had sent the library books to be disinfected, did not see the need for more expensive tests. The teachers decided to sue the school district to get the building fixed or replaced.

Baker says district officialswould not allow union representatives to meet with the experts the district had hired, although district officials say they held public meetings that the teachers could have attended. As a consequence, the union decided to hire its own investigators. The union also began documenting health complaints from students and teachers, and Baker keeps a stack of handwritten notes from parents and teachers in her files, documenting the dates of health complaints such as headaches.

Several former teachers interviewed for this story asked not to be identified because, they said, they feared retribution from the school administration. And the school’s former nurse, Susan Burke, was unable to comment under the terms of a separate lawsuit she had settled with the district. Burke sued the district after she was denied a transfer she had sought to another district school because of health problems—including headaches and a chronic sinus infection—that she and her doctors believe were related to mold.

Experts agree that many energy-conservation efforts in the 1970s inadvertently harmed schools' air quality and created mold problems.

“Our health was at risk, and we felt like we tried so hard to sit down, and get answers, but they beat around the bush,” says one teacher, referring to school administrators. “The trust level was awful.”

District officials disagree.

Richardson, the superintendent, says the district’s environmental consultants maintained that the building was safe and that no further work was needed.

The way she sees it, Richardson says, the level of concern reached near- hysteria once the local news media began covering the situation. It became impossible to have rational conversations with the community, she says, because people refused to listen.

“The emotions got ahead of the facts,” Richardson says. “There was never a recommendation to close the school; it was not unsafe.”

The Lower Pottsgrove Elementary facility was eventually closed, she adds, because the district had another, newer building it could use rather than put up with the problems posed by continued use of the older facility. Once the school was closed, the teachers’ union dropped its lawsuit.

Further, Richardson suggests that the teachers might have been using health and safety concerns to play politics, because they wanted a nicer facility. The teachers interviewed denied those accusations.

The biggest problem in the former Lower Pottsgrove school, Richardson maintains, was the carpeting. She notes that the district is now replacing carpet with solid-surface flooring in its other schools as a precaution and to simplify cleaning.

Past renovations, though, offer some clues about the former Lower Pottsgrove facility’s problems concerning indoor-air quality.

Exelon Nuclear Power Plan is less tha five miles from Lower Pottsgrove Elementary school.

Heightened Concern: People in the community are sensitive to potential health hazards, in large part because of the existence of the nearby Exelon Nuclear Power Plant. The plant is less than five miles from the former Lower Pottsgrove Elementary School building.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard/Education Week

James Boyce, a former longtime principal at Lower Pottsgrove Elementary, worked there in 1978, when the school underwent a major renovation. A new library was constructed in the courtyard space of what had been a U-shaped building, he explains. That new room shut off outside access for the classrooms that had faced the courtyard. The remaining outside windows were closed off or replaced with much smaller models, which have only one small pane at the bottom. The panes tilt outward, providing only minimal ventilation.

Boyce says that by the mid-1990s, the orange carpeting was worn out. Duct tape patched it in many areas, and efforts to clean it resulted in a damp, musty smell because ventilation was too poor to allow the carpet to dry thoroughly. The 1978 renovation had included air conditioning in some areas, but it wasn’t until the entire school was air-conditioned in the late 1990s that the mold problems became obvious, Boyce says.

Air-quality experts agree that many energy-conservation efforts nationwide in the 1970s inadvertently harmed schools’ air quality and created mold problems, because they cut off sources of natural ventilation. Carpet and adhesives are also known to harbor mold, and heating and air-conditioning systems can carry it throughout a building.

When students and teachers at Lower Pottsgrove began getting sick, Baker says, “it wasn’t long before everyone started putting two and two together.”

The building sits on a hill a few miles from the center of Pottstown, in the borough of Lower Pottsgrove, surrounded by modest older homes and new subdivisions. It’s evident that the original large windows have been bricked up and replaced with the smaller, 1970s-contemporary windows.

A banner draped across the entrance announces that the building is now the Coventry Christian School.

Inside, the front office appears barren. Only a couple of chairs and a few boxes have been moved in, and the receptionist’s desk sits in the middle of the gray-hued space.

Down a narrow hallway, Principal Paul Q. Fisher has hung a few photos and certificates in his small, windowless office. In this office, he has shown dozens of parents the environmental reports commissioned by Coventry Christian School officials before they bought the building from the district. He says those reports show the building is suitable to house children. Parents always ask about the mold, he says, but the reports have convinced the parents who now send their children here that there is nothing to fear.

The superintendent admits she and other district leaders were overwhelmed by the scientific data they needed to absorb and then relay to the community.

“Being a private school, you can’t afford to move into a school that has [mold] problems,” says Fisher, who is in his fourth year as principal of Coventry. “Our constituents will turn around and look somewhere else.”

The private school’s enrollment this fall was 108 students in grades 6-12, a slight increase from the 105 students who attended in another building last year. Fisher says nobody pulled out because of the current building’s history.

A trip through the school reveals no evidence of the mold, just a tired old building with little character or color. The sparseness of the front office continues through the dimly lit hallways, painted a dull off-white and interrupted halfway from the ceiling with a wide blue band. Since the building is at less than a fifth of the capacity it held as a public school, it’s quiet and has a hollow, deserted feeling.

The basement cafeteria, located down a rather dark staircase, now shows no sign of the purple-black mold the former teachers reported. There’s one plaster wall with badly peeling paint that Fisher explains is being stripped and repainted. But Coventry Christian uses this space only for storage and other odds and ends.

Coventry paid just over $1 million in June for the facility and the surrounding 13-acre site. The school has made some additional repairs to bring wiring and other components up to current building codes, Fisher says, as well as other repairs to the heating and air-conditioning system.

“It’s been a real blessing to us,” he says of the building. “What’s a public school’s loss is our gain.”

Since the school was shut down and then sold to Coventry Christian, classes for the 600 students from Lower Pottsgrove have been held at a middle school in the district. The district is renovating an older facility that used to house the middle school, and the elementary students are scheduled to move into that building in January.

But mold issues continue to plague district leaders. An outbreak of mold in a newer school in the Lower Pottsgrove district made headlines this past summer. Two key officials, the business manager and the facilities manager, left the district about two years ago in the wake of the Lower Pottsgrove Elementary mold controversy.

Reflecting on the experience, Superintendent Richardson says: “I don’t think we learned enough fast enough.”

Paul Q. Fisher.

Safe Haven?: Paul Q. Fisher, the principal of Coventry Christian School, says his school had experts conduct air-quality analyses of the building before purchasing it for $1 million from the local district. The building, he says, has “been a real blessing to us.”
—Photograph by James W. Prichard/Education Week

She admits she and other district officials were overwhelmed by the scientific data they needed to absorb and then disseminate to the community. And she says she was put on the spot several times at school board meetings when community members bombarded her with questions and comments about data that she couldn’t explain.

“I was not in a position to explain or defend the test results,” Richardson says. “My silence may have made people think I was saying that they were right.”

Other problems arose when some test results did not come back on time, she says. Community members thought the district was trying to hide data, when it just wasn’t available.

District leaders bristle at the thought that they would negligently put students in a toxic building.

“What would be our motivation?” asks David L. Nester, the district’s current business manager, who joined the district about two years ago. “We would have nothing to gain from failing to address the issue.

“Sometimes,” he adds, “the facts don’t allay the fears.”

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