Earlier today, as we prepared to publish this post, news broke of Hinsdale Middle School’s closure tomorrow due to the possible discovery of mold. For the last 8 hours, since Dr. Schuster sent out the email announcing the closure, we have scoured our sources for any additional information, read online news coverage and watched the CBS news broadcast from HMS discussing the situation.
And now we are angry!
Why? Because it appears that after briefly emerging from what some of us might call a rat hole in order to sprinkle some small tidbits of information around in the midst of the serious announcement that HMS is closed tomorrow, the administration has reverted back to radio silence. No new or official information has been released by Dr. Schuster. No emergency school board meeting has been scheduled to publicly discuss what has happened.
That is simply unacceptable.
Here is what the community, HMS teachers, staff, parents and students have a right to know and see immediately:
- Every single HMS air quality test report for the last five years should be published on the D181 website – in its entirety. The community has a right to see the actual test data and see the conclusions drawn from this data.
- When the HMS mold test data and report is received by D181 on Friday afternoon, Dr. Schuster should immediately email a copy of the data and report to every single D181 parent, teacher and staff. It should also be published on the D181 website for the entire community to access.
- Any other reports that address HMS mold test data for the last five years should also be published on the D181 website.
- Most importantly, before HMS reopens on Tuesday (and for the sake of our children's education, we hope it does), the Board of Education should convene an emergency public meeting on Monday, January 20 and provide D181 teachers, staff and parents a forum to ask questions and receive answers from the Administration and Board regarding any of the HMS air quality or mold test results.
Concerned parents have lost confidence in Dr. Schuster because of the way she has handled the environmental and health concerns at HMS. She has not been forthcoming with full and complete information. She has not provided any public forum at which parents or teachers were told about the HMS situation and were allowed to ask questions and receive answers. She did not even bother to stay in town to deal with last week's second burst pipe and continuing roof leak issues.
So let's look at what Dr. Schuster and the Board did before this afternoon's decision to close HMS. Let’s review what they actually discussed during the 1/13 Board meeting.
Our last post exposed the horrendous ongoing environmental conditions at Hinsdale Middle School, that for over three years have raised health concerns by both teachers and students. Once again we thank the three speakers who made public comment at last Monday’s meeting. But for their disclosures, we are convinced that the D181 central Administration may have continued to remain silent about the gravity of the situation until, of course, this afternoon when an outside company discovered possible mold.
We believe that it was only as a result of the public comments that the Board was forced to discuss the HMS situation during the 1/13 meeting. President Turek claimed that a discussion would have taken place under the agenda item dealing with the Facilities Committee Report, but Member Heneghan correctly pointed out that this was not accurate since what was being presented to the Board for approval Monday night was a recommendation to hire an architectural firm to develop a facilities plan that would look at the facilities needs at all the schools.
Take a moment to read the information on the Facilities Committee’s recommendation found on Board Docs. (Click to open 1/13/14 Frisch report; Click to open Healy Bender letter.). No reasonable person would conclude that Dr. Schuster planned for the Board to discuss the environmental and health issues at HMS. Fortunately, or rather unfortunately for HMS, as bad luck would have it, the crisis created by the Polar Vortex and the massive damage caused last week when the pipes burst and roof leaks poured water into the building forced Dr. Schuster’s hand.
So, yes, the Board did discuss the crisis, especially after former Board of Education President Ann Mueller, a current Facilities Committee member, presented the committee’s perspective on the desperate need to commission what was called an Educational Adequacy Analysis, but with an emphasis on the urgent need to address the situation at HMS following last week’s events. She also explained how the committee had toured HMS before the crisis last week and had determined that there are insufficient and inadequate classrooms.
During the course of the resulting Board discussion, we learned the following (our commentary is in italics):
- The Administration was “waiting” for the report of an air quality testing company, Environmental Integrity Services. (Note – Board Docs does not mention this report at all. This further evidence that Dr. Schuster had not planned to discuss it.) As disclosed by HCHTA Union Co-President Heather Scott, this company conducted air quality testing last fall after the teacher survey revealed how many teachers were reporting health issues. Why hadn’t the report been completed sooner? Dr. Schuster stated that it was supposed to have been ready last Friday, and that after the pipes burst, the company came in and did more air quality testing.
- This afternoon her email represented that the results have finally arrived and that the data shows that the air quality in HMS is within acceptable limits. But, with fans blowing and humidifiers running continuously all week as the building was being dried out, can this data be trusted to be accurate?
- Board members asked to receive a copy of the report as soon it arrived. Have they now seen it?
- As we stated above, the Administration should publish this report on the D181 website. Parents, D181 staff and community members all need to see this report with their own eyes. We no longer trust Dr. Schuster, who has become a spin master, or her staff, to accurately represent what it says.
- The Board approved hiring Healy Bender to prepare the Educational Adequacy Analysis. Several board members, including Gary Clarin, Jill Vorobiev, Mridu Garg and Brendan Heneghan all pushed for this report to incorporate environmental findings.
- These members also correctly identified the need to prepare short, medium and long term planning documents to address the needs at HMS. The Board approved the commissioning of the Master’s Facilities Plan with the incorporation of a report on the environmental conditions at HMS. Cost: $26,000. This is, in our opinion, a drop in the bucket when compared to the millions it will probably cost to remediate the damage and environmental conditions at HMS, or to build a new middle school.
- Dr. Schuster stated during the discussion that HMS is at a “crossroads” and repeated numerous times that the only solution to address the problems may be to build a new middle school. Board members concurred. But as everyone in the community knows, you can't just snap your fingers and magically build a new school. There would be a lengthy process involving going out for bid for a firm to design, draft architectural plans and project the cost for a new school. A location for the new school would need to be identified and possibly purchased. Then D181 would need to go to referendum to get community approval of the property tax increases needed to fund the building of a new school. Only after all these steps and only if the referendum was successful, would a new middle school be built. We cannot imagine that all of these steps could be achieved in less than two or three years.
- And in the meantime, what to do with the existing building, space issues and most importantly environmental and health concerns that exist at HMS? The Board asked for an update at the next meeting, January 27. Members also said that if necessary, an emergency meeting should be called before then. In light of the tomorrow's closure of HMS, a special meeting is warranted before the school reopens. While the Administration should provide the community with full information at this meeting and answer all questions, perhaps independent experts from FEMA or OSHA should be brought in to answer questions posed by staff and parents regarding their health and safety concerns.
Until Dr. Schuster's email announcing the closing of HMS, Dr. Schuster remained silent. She did not send out any type of communication to parents addressing what had been disclosed by teachers and staff during the meeting. Until this afternoon, no additional information was sent to HMS parents regarding the steps being taken at HMS to clean it up. Only parents who attended, listened to the board meeting vial live stream or podcast, read the newspapers or this blog had any idea of the gravity of the situation.
By the time Dr. Schuster’s email was sent after school today, we had already learned the following:
- All week long, HMS was being “dried out.” Servpro trucks, a water damage and restoration company, were seen at HMS all week. We were told that walls were being being torn down and dry wall stripped. Some time sensitive, after school activities, such as the rehearsals for next month’s musical, were cancelled in order that the restoration work could take place.
- It appears that this information was accurate, as it is consistent with what Dr. Schuster revealed in this afternoon’s email.
- But other distressing rumors also circulated. Because the community has lost trust that the Administration's information is accurate or complete, we are going to report what these rumors are. We hope that they turn out NOT to be true, but if they are, has the Board of Education been told any of these things, because they were not discussed during Monday’s meeting?
- We have heard that that there are plans to move the students to an off-site location for the remainder of the school year and that the Administration is trying to locate available facilities.
- We have heard that central office administrators, and perhaps Dr. Schuster herself, actually met with the Chamber of Commerce after Monday’s meeting to explore possible buildings that could be leased for such purpose.
- We have heard that CHMS may be run in split shifts, and that HMS students will move there for the remainder of the year.
- We have heard that next year, 6th graders might remain in their home schools, while 7th and 8th graders would go to CHMS.
If any of these options were explored before the discovery of possible mold today, and before the closure of HMS tomorrow, why was none of this discussed on Monday night? Why hasn't any of this been brought to parents’ attention? One could speculate that the Administration is being proactive and simply exploring possible short term solutions. But these options are extreme. These actions would suggest that the Administration is very worried that the test results – air quality and mold – will prove what the teachers and staff at HMS have been saying for years, that the building is an environmental hazard and is making people sick.
The safety of our students, teachers and staff who spend 8 hours a day in HMS must Dr. Schuster and the BOE's top priority. The events of the last two weeks, coming on the heels of what teachers have experienced over the last three years, have led to this moment.
The moment when an entire school had to be closed.
Hopefully it is only until next Tuesday when school is supposed to resume district wide after the Martin Luther King Holiday. But how are we to trust and believe that if the doors at HMS do open on Tuesday, that our students’, teachers’ and staff members’ health and safety will not be in jeopardy? While Dr. Schuster claims that the air quality test found the air to be acceptable, what then is the explanation for all the health issues that the teachers disclosed last Monday night? There has to be an explanation for those health issues. The teachers, staff, students and parents deserve an explanation, and deserve answers to each and every question anyone may have before one single person steps foot back into Hinsdale Middle School.
For the Administration to be anything other than completely transparent, honest and informative in the next 96 hours would be tantamount to negligence. Teachers, staff, parents and students must have all information and options presented to them immediately, in order that they can each make individual decisions about what they believe is in their best interest BEFORE returning to HMS.
Dr. Schuster said HMS is at a crossroads. That is an understatement!