The mold controversy in Howard County public schools has reached the state's highest office.
At a meeting of the state Board of Public Works Wednesday, Governor Larry Hogan said that he and the other members of the board — Comptroller Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp — had received many "letters of concern" from parents, a school board member and state Del. Warren Miller about maintenance and mold issues in Howard County's public schools. Hogan and Franchot questioned Superintendent Renee Foose extensively about these concerns.
"The most egregious instance is Glenwood Middle School in western Howard County," he said. "Several Glenwood students and teachers became very ill and required hospitalization. News reports revealed that the school system's officials knew about these mold issues in the school but did not inform parents or school community until much later."
Hogan also described the fire that broke out in the school's boiler room on Jan. 5. Glenwood's 500-plus students and staff have since been relocated to three different schools. Students are due to return to the school, which has since undergone fire repair damage, following weather-related closings this week.
"There’s a palpable loss of trust between many parents and the county school system," Hogan said, "and in particular with the superintendent."
In response to Hogan and Franchot's questions, Howard Superintendent Renee Foose repeatedly referred to the new $3 million heating and air conditioning system installed at Glenwood Middle last summer to remediate excessive humidity.
"We've been doing air monitoring in that building for the last six months," she said about the middle school, which was built in 1967. "We publicly report out the environmental air quality conditions in that building. So the problem is behind us--we solved the humidity problem that led to the mold issue that occurred."
Hogan seemed less than satisfied with this response.
"It's a huge concern in your county from lots of places," he said. "It needs to be addressed, so I wouldn't dismiss it as if it's not an issue."
Comptroller Franchot pressed Foose about when she notified parents about "the mold."
"We didn't have an epic mold outbreak," she said. "We were responding to this as a maintenance issue because it was a humidity issue. We had contractors and engineers in and out of the building trying to determine what exactly is the source of the problem. And when it escalated into...we had a community meeting in August that we shared all of our information."
Foose also said that students were not coming to the nurse's office at Glenwood Middle at a higher rate than any other county school.
"So when several students and teachers were hospitalized for being ill, you think it was their imagination?" Comptroller Franchot asked. "You never had a mold problem?"
Foose said that she didn't think it was imagination.
"But you didn't have a problem?" Franchot continued. "And you didn't think it was worth notifying the parents that there could have been a problem?"
Foose responded by saying that she was "not familiar with any hospitalization."
"Maybe you ought to go back and check," Franchot said.
When staff returned to Glenwood Middle last Thursday, two staff members were taken by ambulance to the Carroll County Hospital after they experienced dizziness. Principal Robert Motley notified parents of the incident in an email last week.
Foose told the Board of Public Works that these staff members became ill because they were sensitive to cleaning products that had been used at Glenwood Middle.
As the discussion wrapped up, Franchot said, "So pretty much your testimony is that you don't have any mold or problems in Howard County schools?"
"It's my testimony that the issues that we had are all taken care of, and we're doing our best to make sure that the building -- all of them -- remain a healthy environment for students to learn and teachers to work," Foose said.
Before the superintendent took the podium, Delegate Miller told Hogan that the mold issue goes back to the poor condition of school roofs and, more broadly, the school system's failure to maintain school facilities.
"We all know that the age of the school isn't the concern. It's the way it's maintained," said the Republican representing District 9A. "When I was a kid, my elementary school was a 100-year-old school, and it was fine because it had been well-maintained."
"Anything you can do to supervise public dollars for these schools and make sure the money's being spent correctly would be much appreciated," he continued.
The Board of Public Works is recommending $22 million in state funds for the Howard County school system's capital budget, Hogan said, and is requesting maintenance reports.
"We'd like you to stay on top of this issue and report back to us on any additional mold issues that you discover and any ongoing maintenance steps you're taking to address the problem," he said.