Crews Tackle Middle School Mold Problem

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The Rim Country Middle School gym was stacked full of new insulation and ceiling tiles earlier this week as a large crew from Southwest Hazard Control hurried to take advantage of spring break.

After delays caused mostly by another contractor going out of business, mold mitigation work is under way at the middle school and should be completed by the end of the two-week recess.

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Southwest Hazard Control employees filled the Rim Country Middle School gym with insulation and ceiling tiles at the beginning of spring break. The materials are part of the mold mitigation effort that district officials hope will be completed by the time students return on March 22.

"They're telling us they will be off site by the 19th and have the test results by the time school starts on the 22nd," Joe Martin, director of support operations for the Payson schools, said. "They have to do follow-up testing after the buildings have been cleaned."

The problem was initially discovered during spring break a year ago when air-quality testing showed that both the sixth-grade building and the music/band room had elevated levels of microbiological allergens or mold.

"We tested the rooms themselves and also all of the duct work," PUSD Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said. "What we found is evidence of airborne penicillium, some smuts, which is a fungus, and a little bit of stachybotrys. They were somewhat generalized throughout the areas tested."

As a precaution, the remaining areas of the RCMS campus -- the seventh- and eighth-grade buildings and the gym -- were tested. While the sixth-grade building was by far the worst, problem areas were found throughout the school.

"In the seventh- and eighth-grade building, there were just slightly increased levels of the mold spores that are already in the air, but we didn't want to respond to just one or two buildings," Martin said. "We took a campus-wide approach."

The cleanup was put out to bid, and a contractor began mitigation work in the sixth grade building in May. Unfortunately, that contractor went out of business and left the project unfinished.

"They did clean the ductwork, but there was a breakdown in communications on when they were supposedly done," Martin said. "It was a bad situation, but they assured us everything was disinfected and what was left there was not the mold byproducts."

Another delaying factor was the need to replace or repair and recertify all the roofs at RCMS. The sixth-grade building and the gym were re-roofed, and repairs were made to the roofs of the seventh- and eighth-grade buildings.

When the project was re-bid, Southwest Hazard Control was selected. The district is required by law to accept the low bid except in extreme circumstances.

"In the sixth grade building, the roof has been finished and we have put in new ceiling panels, new insulation, and done a biocide wipedown of the actual airspace above the attic and the classroom spaces," Martin said. "All the classroom walls and interior walls are being wiped down, and the same protocol is happening in all of the buildings."

The suspended and "glue-up" ceilings in the gym have been replaced, although it was not deemed necessary to replace the high gymnasium floor ceiling.

"The band room was totally stripped and they fixed the roof leak," Martin said. "The cafeteria got all new ceilings and insulation, and it's being wiped down as well.

"The gym is just about done, the sixth grade building will be done early next week, and they plan to start the seventh and eighth grade buildings on Monday."

The next phase is the replacement of all the school's evaporative coolers with air conditioning units, a process that is under way. While the state School Facilities Board is helping to fund a portion of the cleanup, the district had to get permission from Gila County to exceed its budget to pay for the new air conditioning units.

"The School Facilities Board is picking up a little over $200,000, but we're paying $800,000 for the middle school (clean-up)," Weissenfels said. "It's been a huge dip into our budget."

The RCMS air conditioning units will be installed this summer, and Martin hopes to eventually eliminate evaporative cooling from all PUSD schools.

"We still have buildings at (Julia Randall Elementary) and at the high school that have evaporative coolers," he said. "Mold breeds in evaporative coolers and on cellulose, which is sheetrock fiber, evaporative cooler pads, any dark places like that."

Weissenfels emphatically denied rumors that the mold problem at RCMS produced widespread illness.

"To the best of my knowledge only one employee did have some problems with the air quality," he said. "She was immediately offered another location so she could get out of that area."

The superintendent also denied rumors that the district could have moved faster to clean up RCMS and that the board was unaware of some of the issues.

"The board is extremely aware of the situation," he said. "This whole thing has been frustrating for all of us, and we have tried to work through it as fast as we can."

Martin promised an ongoing mitigation effort throughout the district.

"Once we're done with the middle school, we have to continue working to make sure the rest of our buildings are safe," he said. "This will be an ongoing process."

Problems with air quality caused by contaminants like molds, mildews, and fungi have only become an issue in recent years, thanks in part to more sophisticated testing procedures. Besides the contamination at RCMS, the school district has investigated and dealt with problems at Payson Elementary School, Julia Randall Elementary School and Payson High School over the last few years.

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