School Climate & Safety

Moldy Buildings: Troubling Trend For Many Districts

By Mark Stricherz — September 26, 2001 8 min read
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A school in Portland, Maine, was closed forever last month. The Romeo, Mich., district started the school year four days late. And students from a high school in St. Charles, Ill., now are forced to take their classes at a middle school.

Workers in protective clothing clean up mold at Washington Elementary School in Romeo, Mich., where the start of the school year was delayed so that children could be assigned to other schools in the district.
—Courtesy of WMI Environmental Services

The culprit in each case was mold, literally a growing problem in the nation’s schools.

At least a dozen schools recently have been closed for days or weeks, and in three cases permanently, to fight mold. Lawsuits over illnesses associated with mold—from asthma and shortness of breath to loss of memory—have been filed by teachers. And districts have had to pay cleanup costs totaling millions of dollars.

Molds grow on virtually any substance when moisture and oxygen are present, including ceiling tiles, carpets, wood, and paper. It spreads by producing tiny spores, which float through the air continuously.

“Mold is ubiquitous. It’s a major part of the biomass of the world,” said Dr. Dorr G. Dearborn, a professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University’s school of medicine in Cleveland.

Mold in schools is no accident, experts say. It’s the legacy, they explain, of cheap construction materials, poor ventilation, and sloppy maintenance that allows leaks to go unchecked or be improperly repaired.

“When budgets get tight, the last priority is maintenance, and virtually all of these cases are related to water damage,” said Dr. Linda D. Stetzenbach, a research microbiologist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

Cases of mold in schools have been reported in at least 13 communities, including Clovis, Calif.; Nashville, Tenn.; Newton, Mass.; Okmulgee, Okla.; Phoenix; and Shrewsbury, La.

The blackish-gray substance has been shown to impair breathing and exacerbate allergies in some people. Teachers have raised health-related complaints that include watery eyes, backaches, and sore throats. More seriously, mold has been blamed for causing bronchitis and memory loss.

Some molds, such as black mold or stachybotrys, are even known to produce potent toxins. But medical research has not verified claims that some types of mold cause memory loss or render students and adults unable to work.

Still, so many schools have reported mold problems that a cottage industry has arisen to clean them up. And one company that specializes in removing mold plans to hold a conference next month on the problem of mold in schools, built around a case study of mold in a high school.

‘Unhealthy Problem’

In the past few months alone, an increasing number of school districts have grappled with how to detect and remove mold.

In Michigan’s Romeo district, officials delayed the opening of the school year this fall after mold was discovered covering the roof and in roughly 20 classrooms at Washington Elementary School. Teachers had complained of watery eyes, backaches, and bronchitis.

Soon, the whole district was paying the price for the cleanup.

The school’s 540 students were transferred to three other schools in the 5,200-student district, located in the Detroit suburbs. The school’s doors aren’t expected to open for another two to five months, said Kathy Wreford, the school board president. The cleanup is expected to cost the district $200,000 to $300,000. And during the time the school is closed, Principal Brian Winters will have to commute to three different schools, which stretch over more than six miles.

In Maine’s 8,000-student Portland district, Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor, on Aug. 15, closed Jack Elementary School permanently. Airborne stachybotrys had been found there, and the school’s principal and a group of teachers had complained for 15 years about headaches and inflamed asthma.

“We had a highly concerned staff who knew about the problem, and when they heard about stachybotrys, I think it created an unhealthy problem,” Ms. O’Connor said.

Students from the school were moved from the site, which is surrounded on three sides by water, to attend classes in two downtown buildings. The district will spend $100,000 for every three months it rents the rooms.

In West Carrollton, Ohio, three teachers at West Carrollton High School have sued district officials for allegedly failing to prevent mold-related illnesses the teachers say they have contracted. Toni Craig, a longtime English teacher at the suburban Dayton school, stopped teaching there in August of last year after complaining of acute allergies, memory loss, and muscle cramps. The teachers filed their $6 million lawsuit Aug. 27.

Paper-Based Materials

“When I got a metallic taste in my mouth from being in the room, and three other teachers and students complained about problems, I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to say something’s wrong,” Ms. Craig said.

Rusty Clifford, the superintendent of the 4,100-student district, did not address the teachers’ specific complaints, but said district officials “have been looking at this situation since we first heard about it” in September 1999.

The school’s roof was replaced over the summer at a cost of $900,000, although Mr. Clifford said the work was unrelated to the mold found at the school.

While school officials treat their problems in different ways, health and medical officials agree on the many reasons why mold prospers in schools.

Schools today are constructed of more soft, paper-based material than those in years past, said Phil R. Morey, the director of indoor-air quality at Air Quality Science Inc., a company based in Atlanta that plans to hold an October conference on the problem of mold in schools.

“Before World War II, schools had more plaster and less biodegradable stuff. Modern production methods called for gypsum board and paper-type insulation and plywood,” he said. “These are less expensive to transport than, say, oak or brick.”

In addition to being built of more water- permeable materials, schools are often poorly ventilated.

“In the ‘50s and ‘60s, buildings were often flat-roofed, and in the ‘70s, the energy crisis frightened people into believing that schools should not be ventilated,” said Dr. Dearborn, the professor at Case Western Reserve.

Dr. Stetzenbach, the medical researcher at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, added: “Classrooms today don’t have windows open to the outdoors. They are wholly dependent on air conditioning, so there is not a lot of dilution in the air system. When I was in school, we opened the windows.”

As the problem has grown, businesses have sought to step into the breach. One is Assured Indoor Air Quality of Dallas, whose co-founder is a former schools superintendent in Texas.

Eli Douglas, now the consulting company’s senior vice president, said the firm has found mold in 250 to 300 schools since opening in 1993. “We had a pretty good idea this was a growth field when we started,” Mr. Douglas said.

The federal government has also gotten involved. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last spring put on its Web site,, a 60-page booklet on how to prevent mold from growing in schools and how to clean it up. Officials also expect to make printed copies of the report available to schools.

Health Effects Debated

Despite the concern, researchers differ on mold’s health effects.

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Dearborn of Case Western Reserve published a peer-reviewed article concluding that mold could be deadly, and was responsible for the deaths of 16 infants in a poor neighborhood in east Cleveland.

The federal government, though, has rejected that finding. In 1999, a group of researchers convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the study was insufficiently representative and didn’t prove causation, said Clive M. Brown, a medical epidemiologist at the Atlanta-based federal agency.

Dr. Dearborn disagrees with that assessment, but concedes that research on the toxic effects of mold is thin. Yet he and Dr. Brown agree that mold impairs breathing and causes allergies. On the question of whether mold can reduce memory or the ability to work, they say existing research is insufficient.

“Certainly, there are some individuals who overreact,” said Dr. Stetzenbach of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, “but it’s hard to gauge because of lack of diagnostic tests. It’s a growing field, and we’ll eventually find out.”

‘A Huge Error’

Sally A. Doyle wishes she had found out earlier about the havoc mold can wreak.

One spring night last year, she reluctantly toured the boys’ locker room at Yuma High School in Arizona. A group of athletic coaches had insisted that the school board member come and look at what had happened to the room.

“The floor was just misted over, as slick as could be, and there were textbooks that looked as if they had been dumped in water,” Ms. Doyle recalled.

She had never seen mold overrun a room at a school before. More than a year later, she has seen it change an entire district: the 10,000-student Yuma Union High School District No. 70 in the state’s southwestern corner.

Last fall, Yuma High was closed and its 2,500 students were added to the 2,200-student campus of nearby Cibola High School, an arrangement requiring that classes begin at 7 a.m. and end at 8 p.m.

Last spring, Superintendent Allen R. Brown, saying that the issue had become “very divisive,” departed for a new job as the superintendent of the Elko, Nev., schools. In the end, it took $5 million in state and district money to clean up the school. Despite the ordeal, Ms. Doyle makes no excuses for what happened.

“We made a huge error. There’s absolutely no doubt about it,” she said of the five-member school board, which she believes delayed cleaning up the school. “We learned the lesson the hard way.”


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