We begin our review of the January 13 Board Meeting with two blog posts. The first details the environmental and health concerns at Hinsdale Middle School that were finally disclosed to the community during Monday's board meeting. The next post will address the Board and Administration's response to these public disclosures. We join in the outrage expressed during public comment by the HCHTA Union Co-President and 6th Grade HMS Teacher Heather Scott, HMS Reading Specialist Christine Maxwell and Former D181 BOE and Hinsdale Trustee President Michael Woerner. These respected community members described in graphic detail the overall health effects on the students and staff at Hinsdale Middle School as a result of the physical condition of the building, as well as warning of potential future litigation. Because of the serious nature of this issue, we are going to detail what these three individuals finally disclosed to the community, conditions that Dr. Schuster has, in our opinion, hidden from concerned parents and perhaps also from the Board of Education.
Teachers Union Co-President Scott read a letter signed by HMS teachers and staff that described in shocking detail how HMS has had “chronic and progressing issues for at least the last three years with “air quality, moisture and inadequate space.” The letter pointed out that last Fall a building survey was conducted to address “growing health concerns.” She then disclosed to the Board the following information NONE OF WHICH DR. SCHUSTER HAS PREVIOUSLY PROVIDED TO HMS PARENTS OR STUDENTS:
· 87% of the staff have had health concerns
· 52% have had health concerns in the last three years
· 9% have had ongoing health concerns for 4 to 7 years
· Following the survey a company called Environmental Integrity Services was contracted to conduct air quality and moisture testing. The results have not yet been released.
· Right before school began last Fall, 4 classrooms had to be repaired for water and moisture damage and teachers couldn’t set up or access their classes until the night before school began.
· Four additional classes needed to be repaired over the Columbus weekend due to the presence of water and moisture damage.
· This concerned the teachers greatly as the presence of moisture can lead to mold which the teachers believe was present and removed.
· Most recently, the burst pipes last week caused massive damage in the building and more water damage occurred last weekend.
· Three classes have been shut down and students and teachers have been displaced into a severely space challenged building.
· Bookshelves and lockers are on blocks, water buckets are in many rooms.
· Rags are being used to mop up water creeping into rooms under baseboards.
· Floor tiles are buckling.
· Ceiling tiles are missing due to being waterlogged.
· Blowers and dehumidifiers are in halls and many classrooms.
· PERHAPS THE MOST SHOCKING REVELATION WAS THE FACT THAT in more than one classroom, water dripped onto exposed electrical wires causing them to short and smoke WHILE CHILDREN WERE PRESENT.
We will pause briefly in our recitation of the “disclosures” made by the teachers to state that in our opinion, the mere fact that Dr. Schuster allowed our students to be put at risk of possible electrocution should be grounds for her immediate firing. It is simply inexcusable that she was not present in the building each and every day last week, inspecting each room personally to identify such dangers and ensure that they were immediately remedied. Similarly, it is inexcusable if the School Board President did not accompany Dr. Schuster during these inspections of the building. From what we heard during the meeting, it does not appear that Board President Turek has set foot in HMS since the first pipe burst on January 4. He certainly did not state that he had. As Board President, his "boots should have been on the ground!"
The letter Ms. Scott was reading next explained that while teachers are prepared to deal with the inconveniences caused by the need to repair the building after last week’s crisis, they do not understand and cannot accept the health issues students and staff are experiencing and that have increased over the last several weeks. The teachers had hoped the symptoms would be alleviated after the weekend, but they were not. Ms. Scott emphasized that the health issues were ongoing, not new and had been reported to the Administration over the several years. These health issues include:
- Burning and Itchy Eyes
- Nasal congestion and burning
- Inflamed asthma
- Shortness of breath
- Headaches and Migraines
- Scratchy Sore throats
- Light Headedness
She pointed out that symptoms are being reported at a higher level than usual and identified that there are “medically fragile students” that are being affected who have "asthma, allergies, heart conditions, auto-immune conditions", and staff who also suffer from asthma, allergies and in one case a pregnancy. Teachers have consulted with their doctors and allergists and in the case of several teachers who are cancer survivors have been advised by their oncologists, who are very concerned, that they file for workmen’s compensation.
With obvious emotion in her voice, Ms. Scott then said; “Our working environment is our students’ learning environment and at this time we feel it is neither a safe or adequate learning setting.”
Needless to say, when we heard this, as parents who have entrusted D181 to watch over and protect our children five days a week, we felt like we had just been kicked in the gut. We felt sick to our stomachs at the thought that we have been sending our children into a school that is not safe and in which teachers and students alike have been falling ill WITHOUT OUR KNOWLEDGE!
Ms. Scott then presented the Board with the letter signed by HMS teachers and staff and asked the members to immediately come up with short and long term plans to address these long standing issues.
Christine Maxwell, a reading specialist at HMS for 8 of the 11 years she has taught in D181, made the next public comment. Ms. Maxwell was audibly emotional and her voice cracked as she explained that she would do her best to speak, but that she was suffering from the following health issues that had resolved over the weekend, but had returned after being in HMS on Monday:
- Splitting sinus headache
- Itchy Eyes
Ms. Maxwell stated that her purpose in speaking was to address the serious environmental facilities and people issues that exist at HMS and to share a “cautionary tale.” In addition to being a teacher she has also had extensive training in environmental air quality issues as a result of a serious mold and moisture issue that took place in her children’s school district in the 1990’s. She became an environmental advocate to help resolve the issue in that district and was trained by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington D.C. in their Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program that was co-sponsored by other environmental and health organizations. As a result of her training she was hired to give presentations on indoor air quality issues, including prevention and remediation
Other presenters in this program included attorneys who had been hired to defend school districts from litigation when staff and students had been made ill by environmental events. According to Ms. Maxwell, “The attorneys warned the school officials that when a … moisture or potential mold issue arises, the single most important thing they must do to protect themselves from litigation is be honest, caring and forthright. If [anyone] felt that they’d been lied to or issues had been covered up, or health issues had been minimized or discounted, the trust would be broken. They told us that once that trust is destroyed, no amount of money could be thrown at the problem to solve it. They told us that if a district tries to hide an event, or issues that developed, it will always come out and become so much greater that the amount of money to solve it will become astronomical. “ She pointed out that the lawyers described districts where this had taken place and as a result, the trust was irretrievably broken and the community did not believe anything they were told after that or that the problem had been solved. The lawyers further warned the districts against administrators making flippant remarks about the situation that would make the staff suffering from health issues feel devalued as this too would lead to a total loss of trust.
Ms. Maxwell then tied her historical story to HMS and stated that the teachers and staff have complained about health and environmental issues for years at HMS. Pipe leaks this week only exacerbated the problems to the point where the Board has finally been made aware of it. She stated that the Buildings and Grounds department “can no longer hide things,” “place bandaids” or ignore suggestions made by teachers and custodial personnel at HMS who know the building.
According to Ms. Maxwell the following staff members have been ignored by the D181 Administration when they have brought concerns forward:
- The head custodian who has been identifying and raising concerns has been ignored.
- A P.E. teacher who pointed out a cold corner in the 3rd grade gym and warned that pipes could freeze was told that he was wrong because no water was in those pipes. Those pipes burst on Saturday, January 4.
- Teachers’ concerns that the soaked MRC carpeting was not being replaced were ignored and they were told not to worry because the water was “clean water.” Ms. Maxwell questioned this conclusion since the water that soaked the carpeting first leaked through the roof, the third floor, ceiling tiles, book cases that are being replaced and then onto filthy old carpeting.
- When floor tiles were coming up in a classroom last Friday, a buildings and grounds employee said they would just tape them down. Ms. Maxwell questioned the lack of effort to try and figure out why. Eventually, the Administration had no choice because more tiles started popping up, but as she stated “the damage of the irresponsible district representative was already done.”
- With regard to the mold issues staff raised, a "high level administrator" who had only been in the building for a short time last Wednesday told staff that there was no mold because they had a highly sensitive nose and would “know” if mold was in the building. Ms. Maxwell pointed out that such a statement that devalued staff concerns leads to the staff not believing that they are being listened to or heard.
Ms. Maxwell said that D181 finds itself in a situation where it has been “penny wise “ and “pound foolish” and has scrimped and saved rather than properly deal with the issues at HMS. All that’s been done so far is to cover the symptoms rather than solve the problem. She implored the Board to take action. She thanked the TWO Board Members who had already taken the time to tour HMS and see the damage and urged the other Board Members to do so (Garg – who acknowledged that she had toured the school, and Heneghan – who we have been told did as well). AS WE LISTENED TO MS. MAXWELL, WE WERE DISGUSTED THAT ONLY TWO OF SEVEN BOARD MEMBERS HAD TAKEN A TOUR OF HMS LAST FRIDAY AFTER THE SECOND PIPE BURST AND ROOF LEAKS CONTINUED.
Ms. Maxwell ended by urging the Board to demand that the Administration be honest about what is going on at HMS, seek out and listen to the building staff and not minimize the health concerns. She broke down in tears as she begged them to find a long term plan to permanently solve the problems.
After this extremely moving comment, Board President Turek spoke. While one would expect that he would make a meaningful and substantive comment addressing what he had just heard, instead, he quickly tried to do damage control by asking that only “authorized personnel" speak to staff about the conditions at HMS. Essentially, Turek warned the Administration to tell unauthorized personnel to shut up about the conditions at HMS. Did he NOT listen as Ms. Maxwell described that the person who had made the inappropriate statements about mold was a “high level administrator?” We wish Ms. Maxwell had actually named the person, but clearly, she feared the possible repercussions of naming names.
The final person to give public comment on the conditions at HMS was Michael Woerner, who served on the D181 Board of Education for 8 years, served as Board president and then went on to be elected as a Hinsdale trustee, and was also named president of that elected board. Mr. Woerner’s purpose in speaking was to remind the Board about the mold saga at St. Charles East High School in the late 1980’s that culminated in the building being shut down in 2001. He described the litigation that cost that district in excess of $25 million to settle lawsuits brought by students and staff who had become ill from the improperly remediated mold issues that existed in the building that kept coming back. He then pointed out that the D181 Board must take a very hard look at HMS, a building that in his opinion was poorly designed, is poorly ventilated and is a “sick and unhealthy building” that is making people sick.
Following these comments, President Turek pointed out that he understands the serious nature of the environmental concerns at HMS and that is why the issues were on the agenda for discussion. However, anyone who has reviewed the Board Meeting Agenda would have been unable a find a discussion item regarding the HMS environmental concerns. Mr. Turek tried to suggest that the Facilities Committee report that was on the agenda was intended to cover this topic, but again, a review of the materials posted on Board Docs proves that this was not the case. Rather the intention of the Facilities Committee report was not to address the serious health concerns at HMS, but rather to ask the Board to approve what was called “An Educational Adequacy Analysis” of ALL schools.
Before the Board began a discussion on this Facilities Report, Mr. Heneghan expressed his concern that Dr. Schuster had not made the Board aware of the additional leaks that she was forced to admit occurred at HMS last Friday and over the weekend. We couldn't agree with him more. As Ms. Maxwell pointed out, trust is lost when lies are told and issues are covered up. If the community members who elected the Board now know that even they are not receiving all of the information about what is going on in the schools, especially when serious health issues are manifesting at HMS, we cannot trust anything that Dr. Schuster tells us about this situation.
We cannot ignore the lack of action by the administration and lack of information that they provided to parents during the crisis last week, or in the years leading up to the crisis. Last week, Dr. Schuster failed to provide any details in the emails she sent home to parents that explained how long the "moisture" issues had been going on at HMS. She failed to provide any detail listing any of the medical symptoms that both staff and students have been experiencing over the past three years -- all during her tenure as the D181 superintendent. She failed to provide any information about the nature of the damage to the building, including how water was creeping throughout the building and tiles were popping up. She failed to provide any information about the electrical hazard or that students had been present when water dripped on exposed wiring causing them to short out and smoke.
Dr. Schuster will be sure to make excuse after excuse about why she did not tell the parents what has been going on, but there is NO EXCUSE for such non-disclosure! We will take the time to set out in the next post what the Board and Dr. Schuster have represented the next steps are going to be to permanently address the issues at HMS, but here is the bottom line: WE DON'T TRUST OR BELIEVE THAT THE CURRENT ADMINISTRATION UNDER DR. SCHUSTER'S LEADERSHIP (or lack thereof) IS EQUIPPED TO HANDLE THIS RESPONSIBILITY. In our opinion, Dr. Schuster's inaction, disregard of legitimate health, environmental and structural conditions at HMS for the last three years should be sufficient proof that she needs to leave our District. In our opinion, the Board must NOT renew her contract which is set to expire in June 2015. In our opinion, the Board must evaluate whether her inaction and non-disclosures have compromised the safety of our children and staff and constitute sufficient "cause" to terminate her contract before then.
We are grateful that the teachers who are tasked with the day to day responsibility of teaching and watching over our children had the courage to disclose the facts to the community and did not participate in what some might characterize as a cover up. Their public comments on Monday night finally exposed the reality of the nightmarish and dangerous environmental conditions at Hinsdale Middle School. Now it is up to the Parents to take action and demand accountability and transparency, and full and honest disclosure of all the facts, by Dr. Schuster and the Board. In our opinion, they have put the entire district at risk of litigation that could be brought at any time by any number of staff or parents of students who have suffered medical harm as a result of the environmental problems that have been ignored for three years. It is time to put an end to this irresponsibility!