Walls To Come Down in War Against Mold
From: Robina Suwol
Date: 08 Jul 2003
Remote Name: 188.8.131.52
Walls to come down in war against mold at Coral Springs grade school
By Bill Hirschman
July 5, 2003
Under elegant cupolas at Riverside Elementary, Tracy Spayd's classroom walls
were papered with fourth-graders' essays on Earth Day.
But behind Spayd's tackboard something silently bred like a biology project
Microorganisms in moist pockets of the wallboard churned out mold spores.
Throughout the school, some children couldn't stop coughing from the spores'
toxins, parents say. Other students, with dark circles under their eyes and
runny noses, went to the nurse complaining of headaches, nausea and sore
But for some, the health problems have been far worse.
Eleven months after leaving the Coral Springs school, Anthony Aliseo, 8, can
finally breathe like a normal boy, his mother says.
Holding X-rays of his infected sinuses, his mother describes Anthony's two
years at Riverside: swallowing more than 20 antibiotics and antihistamines,
undergoing two CAT scans, 70 allergy injections. And finally, two surgeries.
"Our motto since day one has been if you can't breathe, you can't learn," Cara
Aliseo said. "How many children does it take to have surgery before they do
Finally, they are. This summer, a strike force of dozens of workers is
invading Riverside to rip out almost nearly half its walls to try to eradicate
the mold problem once and for all.
Riverside is a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong with the school
district's two-decade, $92 million crusade against mold in 150 of its 236
schools. A state grand jury report in May stressed that persistent mold
problems prove that waste and mismanagement still plague the school
construction program. The jury stopped just short of saying mold caused the
illness but did warn "there is evidence to link" them.
The most recent work comes too late for Assistant Principal Deborah Smith.
Vertigo that had her grabbing furniture pushed Smith into early retirement
"I'd think: I have 1,100 kids I'm responsible for and any second you might
have to make life and death decisions. I lost confidence in my ability to
focus." When she left, she said her symptoms subsided.
Hives and profound lethargy transformed Ann Morrison into a mold zealot.
Although she reels from dizziness, the teacher has climbed into the ceiling to
These are extreme examples, but they are not aberrations. Thirty percent of
306 parents surveyed this spring said their children had exhibited symptoms.
For parents of kindergartners, it was more than half.
People have been sick since the $7 million school opened. In 1988. On that
first day, Jan. 3, water that nurtures the mold leaked through poorly
constructed roofs and walls. In 41 places. And it has been like that for 15
Immediately after opening day, maintenance workers and construction company
crews waged a losing battle. Workers plugged one leak. Days later, another
appeared. They tried tar patches, a tanker-truck worth of caulking. Nothing
But the district didn't force the builder, Robert F. Wilson Inc., to solve the
The cafeteria and 30 classrooms flooded every time it rained. Pails and wet
vacs became school supplies. Rain poured through fluorescent lights in the
media center. The librarians' last task each afternoon was to toss plastic
tarps over bookcases against overnight storms. Principal Larry Katz played
musical chairs, shuffling ailing students and teachers to new classrooms.
"We would get up early if it rained overnight," Deborah Smith said. "The
principal and I would have to be there to help the custodian mop the floors
and suck up the water."
Few people made the connection between the escalating coughing and the mildew
until nine years ago, when parents and staffers began comparing notes and
Others resisted the idea -- even Smith, herself a victim.
"I would never tell a lie to parents. But I told parents for four years that
the school district wouldn't allow the children to stay here if there was a
health problem. And I was lying. I didn't know it," she said.
Interviews with grand jury witnesses -- educators and parents --produced
glimpses of a long-running tale worthy of the Brothers Grimm.
When a wall in Smith's office was in danger of collapsing, workers exposed
rusted studs and interior walls coated with "black tarry gooey stuff," Smith
Another evening, "black snow" spewed out of vents over staffers laboring late.
As the staffers brushed debris from their clothes, workers in protective
spacesuits apologized for reversing the air flow.
A cleaning crew last summer failed to encase a work area in plastic. When they
pulled down the ceiling, spores exploded across the campus.
Such mold horror stories have confounded five superintendents'
administrations that have tried to eradicate the problem.
"Obviously, you can read the grand jury report and see some of our practices
weren't best practices," said Jeff Moquin, district director of risk
Superintendent Frank Till has pledged to end a saga of half-measures. "We lost
credibility because we didn't commit to doing a quality job," he said. "If
they had built a quality school back in 1988, we wouldn't be looking at these
One thing that has not suffered is education. The school earned an A or B in
each of the past four years of the A-Plus Accountability program.
But Principal Katz mused, "Imagine what they could have done if they had been
able to concentrate just on education."
Mold has been inescapable in Florida buildings since before Ponce de Leon
built a tiki hut around the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine. It thrives in
tropical climates because moisture provides a hospitable breeding ground.
Mold spores travel through the air, land in damp areas and reproduce. Not all
mold is harmful, but the poisons in some spores inflame existing health
problems. People's susceptibility varies; it's not unusual for one child
to have coughing fits while a dozen classmates are not affected.
Nestled behind walls and ceilings, the mold proliferates until it rots away
ceiling tiles, eats at the base of cabinets, infects carpets and leaves dark
greenish splotches of mildew.
Katz pointed to a new cafeteria wall. "I used to be able to push my finger
against this and it would go right through."
In the mid-1980s, the school district raced to build schools to catch up with
a sudden flood of thousands of children.
To save time, the district reused several architectural plans. Riverside was
the second of five schools using a design by the now-defunct Miller Meier
Kenyon Cooper Architects and Engineers Inc.
The glitch was simple, according to the grand jury and several critics. Before
the first school, Country Isles, was finished, work began on Riverside and the
others. Country Isles began to leak, and then Riverside. Only then did the
staff discover crucial flaws in the plans.
Among them, the cupolas that poured light on children studying lessons also
poured rainwater on them because heat and cold made the aluminum roof expand
and contract. The metal pulled away from stucco that covered joints between
the cupola and the main roof, leaving gaping breaches.
Some observers, such as EnHealth environmental consultant James Litrides, also
blame the quality of construction by Wilson Inc., also now defunct. For
instance, some windows had two-inch gaps between the frame and the wall,
covered by caulking that deteriorated. When custodians pressure-washed the
buildings, water shot through the gaps every month for five years.
Over time, the district fingered several other causes, the most prominent
being poorly maintained air-conditioning systems that created the moist
conditions mold loves.
A 1999 internal audit found that the district's war on mold was poorly
coordinated. Mold might be cleaned out of a wall, but the roof wouldn't be
scheduled to be replaced until years later. Rain leaked in again and mold
Wrestling the country's fifth-largest school bureaucracy was like groping
through a maze, Smith said.
"I'd call and say there's a leak, and they'd say, `No, that's not leaking
anymore.' And I'd say, `I'm standing in the room and the water is coming
through the ceiling.' And they'd insist that it didn't leak."
Long-term solutions were undercut by having a procession of five top
construction officials over the past eight years.
"It was like the nightmare that got dumped in the next guy's lap. And as it
got passed down the chain over time, it got bigger and bigger and bigger,"
Not that the district didn't have plans. In 1999, the School Board reserved
$44 million to help 155 schools. It commissioned architectural studies and
created timetables that didn't last.
That year, crews replaced Riverside's rusty walkway columns, a minor project
kicking off $2.3 million of construction now entering its fifth year.
But the bulk of serious work was delayed, in part to combine other jobs at the
Finally, in 2001, Weiss & Woolrich of Deerfield Beach began replacing
Riverside's roofs, moving gutters and overhauling cupolas. The project dragged
on as the district expanded the work to be done.
But the second stage in 2002, meant to solve roof problems permanently, became
a crushing fiasco.
One day last summer, a crew took apart walls and ceilings in one room. But
they failed to block off the area with plastic sheets, Litrides and Katz said.
Spores exploded into the air- conditioning system and infected "every single
building," Katz said.
Risk management director Moquin said, "Their practices on dealing with
remediation weren't what we considered optimum." Henry Gembala of Weiss &
Woolrich said his crews only worked in areas that the district had declared
cleared and clean of mold.
Forty district maintenance workers spent every day and into the night washing
walls and countertops, cleaning the media center's 1,800 volumes and rinsing
every Lego block.
District officials only gave the go-ahead for students to return the weekend
before classes began. But the all-clear was not a clean bill of health. "We're
not saying it's safe," Moquin recalled, "just that the air quality is
equivalent or better than outdoor air."
Officials thought the problem was over: The leaks were stopped. The mold was
contained and mostly eradicated.
The show goes on, but it wasn't over because the leaks persisted.
"We still had 12 to 14, then we got it down to six or seven," Katz said. Even
last month, a leak developed in a kindergarten classroom where penicillin
Embarrassed and angry, Till pledged to hunt down the problem. Although
consultants said air-quality testing can be unreliable, a fresh round was
The results: About 40 percent of the walls are either contaminated or produce
unclear readings. So, this summer, yet another firm, Cross Environmental
Services, is ripping open walls -- even those with unclear readings-- and
yanking out contaminated wallboard such as that in Tracy Spayd's classroom.
Till and Moquin say they've already implemented many lessons the grand jury
cited, such as not reusing architectural plans until the first school has been
"If we had to do it again, what would we do differently? As a district we need
to respond to these issues quicker and we need better communication with
stakeholders what we're doing and why," Moquin said.
But some staffers and parents are too bruised to be optimistic. They feel
betrayed by what they perceive as persistent misrepresentations and broken
"They told us Aug. 15 that the building was safe, that you did not need to do
wall tests. You could visually inspect [for mold]," Aliseo said.
"We pushed for air tests. They did them. They said it was OK. We could occupy
the school. Five months later they do wall cavity tests and now 50 percent of
the walls are going to come down."
No one contests that the district's efforts over four years have improved life
Near the end of the semester, media specialist Monica Nocerini, a frustrated
veteran of the entire debacle, was quietly savoring a library free of moldy
books and roof leaks.
And yet, when a drenching squall woke her about 5 a.m. one morning, she
automatically worried whether she had covered her bookcases with plastic
Force of habit.
Copyright 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Last changed: March 14, 2006