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State board votes to withhold money from Howard schools

Amanda Yeager
Contact ReporterSpecial to the Howard County Times

Dissatisfied with answers from Howard County public school officials about their handling of mold remediation in school buildings, Maryland's Board of Public Works voted Wednesday to temporarily withhold $9.6 million in school construction funding.

The money was slated for HVAC and roof-top air conditioning unit upgrades at several Howard County schools in fiscal 2018, which begins July 1.

The decision came at the end of the board's annual "Beg-a-thon," a day-long hearing in which school leaders from around the state make their case for greater financial support for capital projects as the governor and General Assembly craft a budget.

Gov. Larry Hogan, who proposed holding the money back, said he wanted to read a forthcoming state report on the issue before deciding to fund the projects. The board's other members, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, agreed.

"There was a discussion today, which I wasn't pleased with the answers on," Hogan said. "I'm going to recommend that we pull (the request) until we have a chance to review the report... and we can really assess what's going on with the mold issue."

HCPSS spokesman John White said school system officials would work to "make sure we answer all the governor's questions well."

"Whatever information he has requested, we're committed to providing the information that's needed," he said.

Earlier in the meeting, Howard schools Superintendent Renee Foose told the board that air quality issues in school buildings have been "mitigated and rectified."

When Hogan and Franchot asked whether requests to fund HVAC and roof-top air conditioning projects were related to an effort to prevent humidity and mold in schools, Foose said that was one consideration.

"With all the projects that we have on our list, the safety and security of students is our foremost concern, so we take into account all the factors and community concerns," she said.

But the superintendent pushed back on Franchot's assertion that mold in buildings "landed students and teachers in the hospital." 

"That's not at all what we're dealing with here," she said, and added that there have been "misunderstandings" about the extent of mold issues in Howard schools. Foose said the school system has documentation to prove that no one was hospitalized in reaction to mold.

Concerns about mold in school buildings were first raised in the summer of 2015, when several teachers and students reported feeling sick after spending time inside Glenwood Middle School. Mold was found in four other schools that summer and fall.

The school system responded by hiring an environmental contractor to conduct air quality tests in the buildings, and the county later followed suit by commissioning an independent review. Results showed elevated mold spore counts in some instances, but the contractors said they were not high enough to cause a health hazard.

Experts say it's difficult to gauge what constitutes a safe level of mold because some people are more sensitive to it than others. There are no state or national standards to determine when spore counts might become dangerous.

At last year's Beg-a-thon, the governor and comptroller questioned Foose extensively about mold and maintenance of school buildings.

Three of the seven HVAC or roof-top unit funding requests from the school system in fiscal 2018 are from schools that were included in the county's air quality review: Mount View Middle School, Pointers Run Elementary School and Rockburn Elementary School.

Wednesday, Board of Education Chair Cindy Vaillancourt and Glenwood Middle School parent Vicky Cutroneo said concerns over mold persist among teachers and community members.

"I believe it's a serious issue and it has not been acknowledged," Vaillancourt said.

Cutroneo said Foose's assertion that no one had been hospitalized because of mold was "semantics." Though people had been transported to the hospital due to adverse reactions, she said, no one was admitted for care.

White defended the school system, pointing out that it had received the fourth highest rating for school maintenance in the state — a statistic Franchot noted during the hearing.

"We've invested a lot of resources and attention into not just Glenwood Middle, but in all of our schools," White said.

Hogan said the board would revisit approval for the funding after he's had "a chance to review this issue."

"It could be our next meeting in two weeks or it could never happen — I don't know, we'll wait and see," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this story. This story has been updated to clarify Foose's response to Hogan and Franchot. 

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