WEST NEWBURY — A plan to remediate a mold and bacteria problem at Donaghue Elementary School in Merrimac was approved by the Pentucket Regional School Committee last night, with Merrimac town officials agreeing to cover a majority of the cleanup cost.
Selectman Earl Baumgardner told the school committee that his board was moving forward out of health concerns for the students, but he still didn't believe the job was the responsibility of the town. He said further discussion on what constitutes a capital expense versus a maintenance expense was needed.
But Pentucket Superintendent Paul Livingston called the mold cleanup a "large-scale" project that was the town's financial responsibility. For Pentucket to cover the cost would require an increase in its operating budget, which would need approval by two of the district's three towns at special town meetings, he said. He also said he was advised the project would likely not qualify for any emergency funding from the state.
According to the regional agreement for Pentucket, the elementary schools are owned by the towns, which are responsible for any capital improvements that require 10-year bonding.
Livingston said he learned that under state prevailing wage laws, a job that would cost $3,500 per room if completed by district employees would bump up to $5,000 per room if it is put out to bid. He had worked with Pentucket facilities manager Greg Hadden to develop a plan to remediate Donaghue's fifth- and sixth-grade wing using a combination of in-house employees and a professional team.
A combination of school insurance money and $6,657 approved by the school board at a special meeting on Thursday would allow the district to pay for the cleanup of that wing. A state-certified construction manager employed by the district will serve as the project's foreman.
Livingston said custodians could remove the carpeting over the cement flooring in the newer portion of the third- and fourth-grade wing.
But the estimated $65,000 needed to remediate the classrooms and hallways that have carpeting over asbestos tiling in that wing would need to come from the town, he said. Livingston said it's up to Merrimac officials to determine how it wants to manage that portion of the project.
Baumgardner said Merrimac has the funds to get the job done, but he was checking with the state Department of Revenue to determine if it could fund the work prior to getting authorization at annual Town Meeting next year. Selectwoman Carol Traynor said officials should have an answer from the state by the end of the week.
Livingston told school and town officials that he checked with the state Department of Public Health and the district's physician to rule out the need to close the school or move students to other buildings during the cleanup.
"The goal here isn't about the money; it's about the health of the children," Merrimac Board of Health member Mark Sofia said.
The rooms with the highest concentration of mold and bacteria should be the first to be cleaned, and the lower-grade classrooms should also take priority because the younger the child, the less developed his or her immune system, Sofia said. Sensitivity to the contaminate must be considered, he insisted.
"Fish are not deadly. Peanuts are not deadly. But to the wrong person they are," he said.
Groveland's Joe D'Amore said parents should be aware that the school committee has a policy, based on space availability and a willingness of parents to provide transportation, that would permit a child to temporarily transfer to another school if they had health issues that could be affected by the problem at Donaghue.
It remained unclear to town and school officials which elected board in the future will be responsible for contacting the Board of Health about similar problems affecting the district's schools. Baumgardner said there was miscommunication and mistakes made, but lessons had been learned. He promised that the health board would be notified as soon as possible in the future.
Hadden will update the school board on the remediation work at its Dec. 21 meeting. Merrimac Health Board Chairwoman Eileen Hurley also said the town's health agent will be periodically checking on the progress.