Thursday, November 29, 2007
Students at César Chávez Elementary School in Salinas came back from Thanksgiving break to find their former classrooms off limits. The Alisal Union School District had closed the classrooms so it can remove mold growing in the walls. Two rows of brown portables now stand behind the basketball courts at César Chávez. Asphalt covers about half of the school’s soccer field.
At a cost of $2 million, the school district relocated 14 classrooms, a computer lab and bathrooms. Except for the administration office, cafeteria and a few existing portables, the district practically had to build a new school so it can fix the old, moldy one.
Water seeped through the windows, roof and into the walls of the 11-year-old school, allowing mold to flourish. The district closed four classrooms at the Towt Street school this past summer due to water leaks and mold concerns. But César Chávez is not the only water-logged school in the district. Creekside, John Steinbeck, and Oscar Loya elementary schools have also closed moldy classrooms. Additionally, the multi-purpose rooms of six other schools have been closed because of water leaks.
While the district looks to repair its facilities, a legal battle looms.
Rogelio Ruíz, attorney for the school district, says it will soon file a lawsuit. Ruíz declined to say who the district will sue, but the district has previously filed complaints against the general contractors of the schools. Salinas-based general contractors Dilbeck & Sons Inc. and Tombleson Inc. built the schools, court documents show. Christensen Architects designed all the projects.
For now the district is focusing on keeping its classrooms safe, says Esperanza Zendejas, the recently appointed superintendent.
“The mold is contained in the walls,” Zendejas says. “But if you don’t repair them, then eventually that could be a problem.”
Although mold is ubiquitous, mold spores can aggravate allergies and cause symptoms such as sinus congestion, sore throat, skin irritation, watery eyes and shortness of breath. Indoor molds can also produce toxins, which may cause nausea, fatigue and respiratory irritation.
Last fall, the district hired M3 Environmental Consulting to monitor air quality at the four moldy schools. Chris Gatward, principal of the Monterey-based firm, says the molds found inside classrooms, such as penicillium and cladosporium, are common molds that are also found outdoors. Because there isn’t a permissible exposure limit for mold, Gatward says he measures the mold levels in the classroom and compares it to the outside air.
Classrooms with elevated mold levels were shut down immediately, Gatward says. “When we had even an inkling of a concern, the room has been closed.”
Gatward says the mold growth at the schools is dormant, but that could change once the winter rains start. Parents at César Chávez school can rest easy, however, because their children are now in portables.
Over the next several months the walls at César Chávez will be torn out, the mold removed and the roof and windows fixed. The students will remain in the portable classrooms through the summer while the school is repaired.
Creekside School will undergo a similar transition to temporary classrooms during winter break. Zendejas says there is comparable water damage at John Steinbeck and Oscar Loya schools, which will be repaired this summer.
Plugging the leaks won’t be cheap. Zendejas says it will cost between $2 million and $3 million to repair each school, not including the price of the portables. She says the district has applied for special emergency construction funds from the state to help pay for the remediation.
“I am concerned that this is going to cost a significant amount of funding from one source or another,” Zendejas says, “but I think the district has the obligation to provide the facilities for the students.”
Ruíz, the district’s attorney, says the soon-to-be-filed lawsuit could help the district recover the costs of the repairs.
The district has been in and out of court with Tombleson Inc. since 2003. Currently, it has a pending cross complaint against Tombleson and Christensen Architects for installing and designing faulty tiles at Martin Luther King Jr. Academy.
In the course of the district’s investigation at MLK school, Ruíz says, a consultant discovered that in addition to the tile, windows and stucco were not properly installed. Tombleson in turn filed a cross complaint against the school district for delaying the construction project, and against its subcontractors for breach of contract at MLK.
In August 2006 the Alisal district and Santa Rita Union School District filed a joint suit against Tombleson Inc. and Dilbeck & Sons, Christensen Architects and another defendant for improper construction at 11 schools. Alisal dropped its complaint shortly thereafter to do more research, Ruíz says. (Santa Rita is still suing Tombleson, alleging that Tombleson was negligent in building the multi-purpose room at La Joya Elementary School. Tombleson filed a cross complaint against its subcontractors for the faulty work.)
Steve Locke, president of Tombleson Inc., says his company wants to resolve the situation but declined to give details because of pending litigation. “It’s an unfortunate situation,” Locke says. “Everyone is trying to find out what the problem is.” Tombleson was the general contractor at Loya school while Dilbeck oversaw the construction of Creekside, John Steinbeck and César Chávez schools.
Sharon Dilbeck, president of Dilbeck & Sons, says she hasn’t dealt with the issue since the district dismissed its case. She says there could be several reasons why the schools have water leaks. “Is there caulking around the windows that is leaking? Is there roof damage somewhere? These schools go back 10 years or so. Have they been maintained? I don’t know.”
Frederick Christensen of Christensen Architects declined to speak with the Weekly.
|THE WEEKLY TALLY||2||
The percent of chickens in the United States raised truly free range by local farmers. Source: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver.