Sunday, January 12, 2014

Schuster Vacations During HMS "Busted Pipe" Aftermath; Staff Continues to Mop Up Damage and Deal with Environmental Concerns

Now that everyone has had time to settle their children back into their school routines, this post will address the serious damage that occurred at Hinsdale Middle School as a result of the winter storm and the whitewashed "celebration" of this event that Dr. Schuster has painted in the midst of ongoing environmental concerns.

We have reviewed the Board Docs information for Monday's meeting (click to open agenda for 1/13/14  meeting),  as well as emails that Dr. Schuster sent to parents last week, news coverage and information that concerned district staff and community members have brought to our attention.  

After 5 p.m. on Friday, Dr. Schuster sent the following email to Hinsdale Middle School Families:
"Dear HMS Families,

We continue to address the serious HMS facility issues resulting from the extreme cold weather, including the water damage from roof leaks, two burst domestic cold water supply pipes servicing science lab stations in two rooms, and one burst sprinkler pipe located above the same rooms.

Most importantly, we want to maintain a safe learning environment. We are concerned about negative health effects reported by staff and students. Additionally, there have some disruptions to the day as crews come into classrooms, and some students and staff have been displaced from their usual rooms.

Here are some of the action steps being taken to address these concerns and the facility needs: 

  • Additional maintenance support at HMS today and 24-hour maintenance staff coverage over the weekend to monitor the building.
  • Dehumidifiers to remove moisture from the air and fans to dry wet areas. We anticipate much of the equipment currently in the building will be removed after this weekend.
  • Air quality testing, with any recommendations for adjustments to be made presented within the next week.
  • New bookshelves ordered for the MRC to replace those with water damage.
This has been a challenging week for HMS and our Buildings and Grounds team. Again, maintaining a safe learning environment is our top priority, and we will continue to move forward in making decisions to support our students and staff.

We truly appreciate your understanding.

Dr. Renée Schuster


For those of you who were unaware, last Saturday a pipe burst at Hinsdale Middle School causing flood damage to 3 floors, causing the indefinite closure of one of the science classrooms.  Early in the week parents were notified that cleanup was underway and that school would be ready to open on Wednesday along with the other buildings.  (Lucky for the district that the Polar Vortex forced the closure of all the schools for two days allowing for cleanup to begin.) Wednesday morning, however, HMS opened and a second pipe burst, this time causing extensive damage to the two largest classrooms in the building where chorus and band are taught.  

School remained open, but parents and staff who have been in the building since then have described the building's conditions as resembling a "war zone."  Needless to say, teachers and students have and will continue to be inconvenienced by these unfortunate events at HMS and we are extremely grateful to all the teachers, HMS staff and Principal Pena, who ensured that our students were able to get back to learning.  It was therefore, quite disturbing to HMS parents to receive Dr. Schuster's Friday email, since at no time until then were parents made aware of additional serious environmental problems that had been manifesting at HMS including:

  •  additional damage from roof leaks, 
  • "negative health effects" that have been reported by staff and students, 
  • disruptions to the educational environment during school hours and 
  • because of the reference to "air quality testing" that is apparently going to take place, an existing, or a concern about the possible existence of mold condition at HMS.
The word "mold" was not used in Dr. Schuster's email, nor did she bother to elaborate about  the "negative health effects" being reported by staff and students, but since mold was found earlier last year at HMS requiring extensive renovations of bathrooms, renovations that were approved by the board on March 11, 2013 (click to open memo re bathroom renovations),  and as we recall, air quality testing was conducted then, we can think of no other context in which "air quality testing" would now be required, except to determine if more mold exists in the building than was previously reported.  And as educated adults, we also know that mold does not form overnight to the point where "negative health effects" are reported, so it is doubtful if the burst pipes led to the decision to conduct additional air quality tests.  

Instead, the reference to "roof leaks" is extremely concerning to us, since untreated leaks can lead to gradual spreading of mold throughout a building if water is allowed to creep into the walls.  But what is even more disturbing is that $172,912.00 in roof repairs at HMS was approved by the board on March 11, 2013 for work to be done last summer!  

In a memo prepared by Gary Frisch, the Assistant Superintendent for Business and Operations, and posted on Board Docs for the March 11, 2013 meeting, he states:

"ARCON Architects prepared bid specifications for the repair of certain sections of the roof and other related repairs at Hinsdale Middle School. The repairs are needed due to on going water leaks, which will be remediated by this project. The repairs have been recommended by ARCON Architects." (Click to open Mr. Frisch's board report dated 3/11/13.)

We assume the work was completed, but if so, what roof leaks is Dr. Schuster now talking about? Was the work incomplete or inadequate?  Or was more work needed that was not brought to the attention of the board for approval?    

While Dr. Schuster's points out that "maintaining a safe learning environment is our top priority,"  as concerned parents we believe her email raises a big Red Flag regarding HMS' environmental conditions - both those caused last week as a result of the winter weather and those that may be longer term -- that required more explanation that what she provided in her email.  So we patiently waited for the publication of Monday's board agenda, expecting that the agenda would include a discussion item regarding last week's events that would focus on HMS and that would allow board members to ask questions and receive answers.  At at minimum we expected a detailed explanation in Dr. Schuster's report.

We were disappointed.

The agenda does not reflect a discussion item regarding last week's events and the extensive building issues that arose at HMS.   The only reference to HMS comes in Dr. Schuster's report which, rather than focusing on the serious nature of what is going on at HMS, has whitewashed and minimized the entire incident in the section she calls "Celebrations and Recognitions."  In that section, Dr. Schuster profusely thanks the buildings and grounds staff for the work they did to get the schools ready to be opened on Wednesday.  While we agree that their hard work should be recognized, it was shocking that buried within this "celebration" was the only reference to the damage at HMS in the following sentence in which she references as "a related note":

"I want to recognize the Hinsdale Fire Department, Jim Prusa, Mike Duggan, Tomas Rios, and Ruben Peña for their quick response to the burst pipe at Hinsdale Middle School."  (Click to open Dr. Schuster's 1/13/14 Report posted on Board Docs.)

That's it.  Nothing further.  So if you are not a parent of an HMS student, you would have no idea that anything serious happened last week or that there are serious environmental concerns that need to be addressed.  And if you are an HMS parent and were hoping for more information, well, you are out of luck!

So we ask, how can the Superintendent of schools be so cavalier about this situation and not provide any more information to parents or board members? Well, we may have an answer.  It has been reported to us that not only was Dr. Schuster absent from the district during the entirety of the students' and teachers' winter break (while other administrators reported to work), she was also absent at the beginning of this week and actually went on vacation at the end of last week.  We certainly hope this information is wrong but to get to the bottom of it the following questions should be asked:

1.  After the first pipe burst at HMS on January 4, when did Dr. Schuster first inspect the building?
2.  After the second pipe burst on January 8, did Dr. Schuster turn around and actually take more vacation days?

In times of crisis organizations have a right to expect that their "leader" be on site and present to deal with all issues directly.  If what we have been told is true, Dr. Schuster did not fulfill this responsibility.

Perhaps her alleged absence from the district most of last week explains the lack of more detailed  information being provided to the board on Board Docs, or is an avoidance tactic to ensure that she cannot be asked any questions about her direct on site involvement during the HMS crisis?

As concerned parents, we sincerely hope that Dr. Schuster was on site during this winter crisis and that it is not the case that she almost immediately followed two weeks off with another vacation, leaving the management of the HMS situation to her underlings. However, in light of her extremely generous vacation package that the majority of the board approved when they renewed her contract last year, we have our doubts.  Regardless of whether or not she was in effect an "absentee superintendent" during this crisis, the community deserves an immediate discussion of the serious environmental issues that have been identified at HMS.  Since Dr. Schuster has not bothered to recognize the need for such a discussion by the board, we expect our elected officials to do so.

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