Getting rid of mold at St. Charles East High School has probably been the single most costly health concern in St. Charles Unit District 303's history. After a $28 million remediation and a six-year legal battle, school officials thought their work was done. On Thursday, officials discovered more mold at the campus.
Normal maintenance and building upgrades revealed black mold growing behind the plaster of a racquetball court at the John B. Norris Recreation Center. The good news is that's an area of the building hardly ever accessed by students. The bad news is it's not clear how extensive the mold growth is nor how long it's been there.
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"It's been there awhile," Superintendent Don Schlomann said. "There's really no way to tell exactly, but it's been there long enough that the metal studs on the wall are rusted. So far we know about that wall, and we'll be checking the other outside walls and the ceiling of this building. We're pretty sure it's not on the inside walls."
The racquetball court with the mold will be sealed with negative pressure to lock the mold in while the rest of the building is examined. Full air quality testing of the building will coincide with the investigation of how far the mold has spread and how it infiltrated the building. Schlomann said the mold was feeding off the cellulose of the wall boards.
The bigger mystery is where the moisture came from that mold also needs to survive.
Schlomann said the district has learned from the past and will open the entire mold investigation and results for public scrutiny. Building inspections of St. Charles East High School in 2001 revealed mold growing behind walls related to problems with the hearing and air conditioning system. Parents suspicious of the air quality in the building had lobbied for mold testing as early as 1997. The mold problem eventually cost the district $28 million to fix. A handful of students also sued the district citing health problems related to the mold. They won a combined settlement of less than $100,000 after a six-year legal battle.
"Now we're real sensitive in this community about that four-letter word -- mold," Schlomann said. "We want to be real open and make sure people know this is what we found, and we're thinking about safety for everyone. Any time you find mold anywhere in a building, it's a big thing. We need to make sure we treat it like that."
District officials hope treating it like a big thing doesn't also lead to a big expense. The district already saw its insurance rates increase from the first bout with mold. The costs of remediation won't be known until the extent of the contamination is known.
Schlomann said part of the discussion then will be who pays the bill.
The Norris Recreation Center is its own not-for-profit, but the organization is a longtime partner with the school district. Students make such heavy use of the center and its swimming pool that even school board members in the past have said the distinction between the two organizations is sometimes hard to understand. The center and the high school building are connected and share the same grounds.
The district used to pay the center $80,000 a year to use its facilities. But that relationship changed a couple years ago when the pool at the center needed $1.3 million in repairs. It was a cost the group couldn't really shoulder. So the district struck an agreement with the center to take over all the maintenance of the facility. In trade, the center now pays the district a monthly rent to use the facilities for communitywide use.
Schlomann said the school board, the nonprofit organization and the insurance company will have to come together to decide who is responsible for some or all of the costs.