Numerous parents, the leader of the local teachers union, the director of the national group that supports the union are concerned for the safety of teachers and students at William Paca/Old Post Road elementary schools after new reports and photos of black mold and rust in the facilities have been revealed.
Before his presentation during the Harford County Board of Education meeting Monday, Randy Cerveny, president of the Harford County Education Association, gave each board member a packet, which included numerous photos of moldy ceiling tiles, rusted sinks and other examples of disrepair.
All of the photos and specific examples he gave were from William Paca and Old Post Road schools.
"These are things that normally wouldn't be seen" by the public, Cerveny said.
He told the board that the HCEA has a responsibility to the teachers it represents, and the students those teachers serve, to address the ongoing issues.
While mold and rust are problems, Cerveny continued, what is shown in the photos "are things that happen as buildings get old." These conditions, however, are preventable if there is proper maintenance of the facility.
Cerveny told the board he understands priorities have been set with addressing aging schools in the county and the lack of funding the school system has been working with.
"Your hands in many cases are tied," he said. Cerveny added that repair orders have been put in by the schools to fix many of the mold and rust issues, but that's not enough.
"Lack of funding by the county has unintended consequences," Cerveny said, a problem that is "not unique to Harford County."
Health concerns associated with mold spores, allergens and old facilities, he explained, are matters that the community and school system equally need to be concerned with for something to be done.
"In order for the county to thrive, the county [government] needs to provide funding for education," he said.
Board of Education President Leonard Wheeler seemed receptive to Cerveny's presentation.
"We will focus on the schools you identified there," Wheeler said, pointing to the packet Cerveny previously handed out, "and move from there."
The board president added that he would like the schools to be reviewed and a report on the conditions to be given.
'Teachers … becoming ill'
During an interview with The Aegis Monday afternoon before the board of education meeting, Steve Benson, who works with Harford's union on a temporary basis with UniServ, said mold continues to be a problem at William Paca Elementary School after officials first learned of it three years ago.
"It's to the point that we have teachers saying they are becoming ill, students are affected by it," Benson said. "This is a problem and it's a health issue… We also have a moral obligation as far as the students are concerned."
Benson said long-term exposure to mold can cause health problems.
Students and faculty members have complained of headaches and watery eyes, although Cerveny said nothing has specifically been linked to the mold.
The HCEA president said the school has only attempted small fixes.
Benson added: "Whatever they did has not worked."
He also said he did not know the exact cause or type of mold.
"It's moisture, it's water, maybe the disrepair of the building," Benson said. "They ought to be seeking that out and testing those [things]. Some mold may be more toxic than others."
"Students and employees shouldn't be subjected to this environment," he continued. "They [HCPS] need to fix it."
Seleste Harris, UniServ director for Harford County, said the school system needs to undertake more serious repairs.
UniServ is a national group that assists local education associations in achieving their goals.
She said the building was supposed to be improved in 2000, but is not scheduled for major repairs until 2020.
"We want them to put money in to go in to fix it," she said. "People just can't wait another eight years."
Cerveny said it also has bigger implications.
"This is one of the unintended consequences of underfunding schools," Cerveny said. "Things can be done to alleviate [the problem] but it costs money … They don't have an emergency fund."
Concerned teachers, parents
During the public comment portion of Monday's meeting, Harris also spoke on behalf of a former Prospect Mill Elementary School teacher Cherri Wollenweber.
Harris, who read from a letter, said Wollenweber came to the school during the 2008-09 school year and taught in a trailer.
"The average temperature in the winter was in the mid to low 50s," Harris read. Wollenweber, who wrote that she has asthma and allergies, had several sinus infections and, eventually, had surgery during her time at Prospect Mill supposedly because of the mold in the facility.
In 2011, Harris continued, Wollenweber began to have bloodshot eyes on a consistent basis — a symptom of mold allergies. The problem did not resolve itself until the school year ended and she was no longer teaching every day.
Eventually, Wollenweber transferred from the school because of her persistent health issues.
Chris Scholz, a Havre de Grace High School teacher, spoke briefly about school disrepair, as well.
The teacher gave examples of conditions at his school — a window in a bathroom that has been broken and taped over for a year and a leaky ceiling covered up with a new tile that is replaced every time there's a heavy rain.
"It's curious as to when these repairs will be made," Scholz said.
Three concerned citizens who do not have students at William Paca/Old Post Road elementary schools also spoke about the aging facilities.
Beth Davis, of the 3000 block of Goodwill Court in Abingdon, said the schools that were particularly bad were all elementary grades with kids "growing up in this atmosphere with black mold and everything else."
"I encourage you to do whatever you can to address the health concerns" of students and teachers, Stephanie Snead, of the 1000 block of Cheshire Lane in Bel Air, said.
Snead said she and her daughter recently visited William Paca and were so put off by the condition of the school that they didn't even want to use the restroom.
Dawn Johnson, who didn't give her address, came before the board "representing the children that have no voice."
Johnson, a North Harford High School graduate, emotionally pleaded with the board to build a new William Paca/Old Post Road facility.
Addressing Superintendent Robert Tomback, she asked, "Won't you please be the superintendent that says 'I've had enough'?"
Board of Education members Cassandra Beverley, Alysson Krchnavy and Vice President Rick Grambo all thanked the community members for taking the time to speak.
"We need community involvement" Grambo said.
Youth's Benefit PTA President Laura Runyeon, Vice President Beth Poggioli and Fallston resident Beth Scheir all spoke on the same issue: lack of classroom space.
"The building capacity needs to be functional …in order to allow these students to excel," Scheir, of the 2000 block of Cross County Court, said.
Runyeon said balancing the school's enrollment was "simply not enough," especially with Youth's Benefit still at 105 percent capacity.
Poggioli, as well as Runyeon, said there haven't been improvements to the school in 16 years and that a new HVAC system wasn't a significant upgrade compared to the school's other issues.
"Students go to school in sub-standard buildings," she said. "We don't need air conditioning — we need a new school."