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East County Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019 2 weeks ago

Mold concerns Gene Witt parents

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After School Board of Manatee County votes against a complete school rebuild, parents question whether their children will be impacted by mold.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

After the School Board of Manatee County voted to renovate Gene Witt Elementary School rather than conduct a study that would examine a complete tear down and rebuild, parents had concerns about whether a renovation will expose their children to mold.

Those concerns stem from the school’s recent cleaning and remediation after parents had complained their children were being exposed to harmful mold.

Dr. Rene Salazar, a University of South Florida assistant professor and certified industrial hygienist, met with about 30 parents Nov. 14 to discuss the mold cleaning and remediation process that had occurred.

Halfacre Construction, the company in charge of the planned renovations, hired EE&G to perform testing of five buildings at Witt for mold.

Cleaning and remediation occurred in June, July and August, and after mold testing in August, EE&G Environmental Services recommended additional remediation in select areas of the buildings.

After further cleaning in September, EE&G sampled the select areas and did not recommend additional remediation.

Salazar, who was hired by the School District of Manatee County, said during an hour-long walk of the school looking at the “worst of the worst” that he didn’t see anything alarming.

Many parents were unsatisfied with EE&G’s report because it didn’t provide details on how the cleaning and remediation was done and how testing was completed.

Parents questioned what the $23.4 million renovation will entail because many want the renovations to include cleaning of air ducts, tearing down walls and fixing bathrooms, among other improvements, to ensure there won’t be mold and maintenance issues in the future.

Those concerns were part of the reason some parents want to replace the school, even if it means the district would have to find another location for the students during construction.

The school board had to choose between a complete renovation of the 26-year-old school or having the School District of Manatee County work with the Florida Department of Education on an analysis of whether it’s best to replace or renovate the facility.

It fueled some parents’ desire to have a study done to determine whether a complete tear down and rebuild of the school would be the right path.

The analysis would have taken three to six months to complete and would take into consideration safety, cost, technology, the learning environment and other factors.

Board members James Golden, Gina Messenger and Charlie Kennedy voted to approve the renovation while Scott Hopes and Dave Miner wanted the analysis before making a final decision.

“If there were ever a need in this district to conduct this type of analytical approach, it would be Witt,” Hopes said. “I don’t think we have enough information to decide whether to renovate or replace.”

Jane Dreger, the director of construction services for the district, said the initial $17 million renovation budget didn’t take into account extra site work that was required as well as construction and material increases and structural deficiencies in the roof that caused each building to need a new roof.

Dreger said she would agree with Hopes on the analysis if the project wasn’t already two years along and if the district hadn’t spent about $3.7 million already.

Based on the $28 million cost of Barbara Harvey Elementary School, the newest elementary school in the district, and other factors, such as increasing construction costs and site work, Dreger gave the board a “conservative ballpark” estimate of $36 million to $38 million for a replacement of Gene Witt.

Golden said that although he wasn’t on the board when the project first came up in 2017, the idea of replacing the school over continuing with the renovation should have been discussed then.

Agnes Tomczuk, a Gene Witt parent, said a replacement would ensure the school wouldn’t have a possibility of mold.

“With new construction, at least the kids wouldn’t be exposed while they’re remodeling,” Tomczuk said.

Erin Goetting, another Witt parent, wants more answers.

“I hope parents get more involved in holding the construction company and the school board accountable for properly renovating the school and making sure there’s no mold in walls and ceilings,” she said.

Many parents wanted to know what could be done now because the completed renovation will take about 16 months.

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