School Climate & Safety

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

March 01, 2004 1 min read
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The site of the future Manatee Education Association school.
—William A. Speer/Silver Image

What: Shopping for a site for a new 2,150-student high school plus other buildings, school district officials in Manatee County, Florida, thought they’d struck gold when they saw a piece of property that the University of Florida was selling in 2002. Positioned right off Interstate 75—a convenient location in a district that’s seen enrollments increase by 1,200 to 1,600 students in each of the past three years—the site boasted 196 picturesque acres dotted with oak trees. Unfortunately, state-required environmental testing discovered not gold but toxic chemicals—minute levels of pesticides and arsenic left by a UF agricultural research center.

The Problem: The quantity of chemicals found was small—trace amounts of four pesticides in two100-square-foot areas, plus elevated levels of arsenic in a former burn pile. Superintendent Roger Dearing, who in his decade as an administrator had passed on other more contaminated sites, argues that it’s become “difficult to go anywhere and not find some kind of problem with land.” But officials were concerned that the public would consider the school unsafe if they did not take bold steps to clean things up. Bearing in mind the site’s former use, district officials signed a deal that stipulated that the university would pay for remediation if any toxins were found.

Result: During three days in December, workers from HSA Engineers and Scientists, a Florida company, removed 1,200 tons of contaminated soil from three areas—two of which will be paved and turned into a sidewalk and parking lot—for about $140,000. Despite the district’s candor and efforts to put the cleanup in perspective, the toxins discovery got some dramatic play in a regional newspaper. But district actions seemed to placate teachers. The Manatee Education Association received no calls from concerned members, according to president Patricia Barber, and the union is currently advising that it will be safe to teach at the school (being constructed above) when it opens in August 2005.

—Samantha Stainburn

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