This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Muñoz-Marin Elementary School has suffered a severe outbreak of mold, leaving the School District scrambling to clean it up so that school can open on time on Sept. 5.
The mold, caused by a malfunctioning air-conditioning system that trapped excess humidity inside, has grown on nearly every surface in three-quarters of the building, according to the assessment of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Danielle Floyd, director of capital programs for the District, said that was the District’s leading theory, but they have not yet completed their root-cause analysis, which will draw an official conclusion.
The District is paying a contractor $300,000 to clean it up, and dehumidifiers are on full blast around the clock.
Officials said that the library would be unusable but that the school, located in North Philadelphia at 3300 N. Third St., would be able to open on time.
Roberto Clemente Middle School, also located in North Philadelphia, had the same problem this summer, although the mold growth was not as severe or pervasive. Both buildings are among the city’s newest, built in the 1990s.
The presence of any mold residue after the start of school isn’t just about hygiene: Mold is a major trigger for asthma. District data provided to the Notebook by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers lists Muñoz-Marin’s asthma rate at nearly 14 percent.
“If this school were across City Line Avenue, they wouldn’t even attempt to open it,” said Arthur Steinberg, treasurer of the PFT. “You’re not going to be able to tell if the air handler is working well enough until the building is occupied, because bodies bring more heat inside.”
Jerry Roseman, an environmental scientist who works with the PFT and has been inspecting Philadelphia school buildings for 30 years, said that the District has not kept up with all the repairs recommended by its own Facilities Condition Assessment released in 2015. He said that the plan identified the air conditioning system at Muñoz-Marin as in urgent need of replacement.
The assessment identified $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance in the District in its hundreds of buildings, many of them a century old.
Roseman and Steinberg said that the safe thing to do would be to temporarily relocate students until the health impacts can be fully analyzed and the ventilation system is functioning.
Floyd said that the facilities assessment recommended that the system be replaced in 2017 and that it was on the list for next year.
Roseman said that the last capital improvement plan he saw did not mention work at Muñoz-Marin.
The capital improvement plan is not readily available on the District’s website, which is being updated.
But Roseman provided a copy of the plan, and the only repair listed at Muñoz-Marin over the next five years was to the “chiller,” an individual component in the cooling system that he said is unrelated to the malfunctioning controls that caused the mold.
But the chiller can be replaced for $70,000, while the replacing the controls would cost $2.1 million.
Roseman said he was told by staff in the building that the air-conditioning system first failed in 2002 — just five years after the school was built.
Floyd has been looking at the history of inspections at the school as part of the process of remediation. Although she mentioned nothing about 2002, she did find that the environmental team was called five years ago to inspect mold found at the school.
The 2015 facilities assessment identified the same cause of the problem that Roseman cited: The building automation system, which controls the thermostats in each classroom, needed to be replaced.
Roseman said that most of the controls had to be disabled or pulled off the wall because they were malfunctioning, causing the thermostats to set the room temperature randomly, sometimes too hot and other times too cold. The building assessment noted this problem, since “the building engineer… did not have the necessary log-in information to access the system.” Instead, the engineer had to go down into the basement and set the classroom thermostats manually.
“In my classroom, Room 306, the temperature was always touch-and-go. Sometimes the library would be ungodly hot,” said Daniel Symonds, who taught at the school during the last two school years. “It was always a common conversation among teachers: Is your room too hot or too cold? It was just part and parcel of saying hello.”
The building assessment recommended that “a new building automation system with modern [direct digital control] modules and communications network should be installed to serve the HVAC system.”
“You can’t really leave failing system components like this alone, simply because there’s an estimate that it should be done next year, when there’s something failing now,” Roseman said. “There’s an urgency determined by the conditions on the ground.”
Hector Hernandez, who has taught physical education at the school for a decade, said that the problem had been going on for at least four or five years.
Hernandez said that the staff was first informed about the mold on Aug. 17 and that they were told they would be able to go back into the building this coming Monday, Aug. 28. The District has since decided to have teachers work out of F.S. Edmunds Elementary School for that week before school starts.
“This type of situation isn’t only occurring there,” said the PFT’s Steinberg. “Instead of applying systemic fixes, they just put Band-Aids on them. Instead of finding the cause, they just deal with the symptoms.”
Roseman attributed part of the problem to a failure of communication within the Office of Facilities & Maintenance and between it and the Division of Capital Programs.
Building engineers work for Operations, and when they discover a problem they can’t fix, such as a malfunctioning HVAC, they fill out a work order that gets sent to Maintenance.
Maintenance is the smaller team of specialists working out of District headquarters who are, theoretically, capable of fixing these larger problems in-house. But Maintenance can also determine that a problem is too expensive or specialized for them to handle, in which case they can send it along to Floyd’s Capital Programs division.
The departments could do a better job of sharing information with each other, with the public, and with stakeholders, Roseman said.
“Sometimes early warning signs are not properly conveyed and people miss them or they don’t understand that some drips from the ventilation system or mold on a tile is indicative of a larger problem,” Roseman said. “The level of analysis that looks for commonalities all across the District – those analytical questions just don’t get asked. Or if they do, they aren’t being shared with anyone.”
The process of diagnosing and addressing building problems also determines whose budget the money comes from, which also contributes to delays and inaction, Roseman says.
“Maintenance and Operations try to assign the tasks to each other, and there’s always competition between them about who should take responsibility,” said Roseman. “That back-and-forth process can significantly slow down fixing things. It often ends up being unclear exactly who should be responsible for it. So something can be left alone for a long time to worsen and become more problematic because it’s not clear who is going to take responsibility for fixing it.”
As the mold at Muñoz-Marin illustrates, delaying repairs can also make them more expensive.
Considering the District would have saved at least $300,000 by remediating the issue immediately, at first glance, the decision not to remediate doesn’t seem to be about money —well, not cash at least.
Capital improvement projects are typically paid for by issuing bonds – when the District takes on debt to be paid off gradually over the coming decades. This method is used for projects that the District simply can’t afford to pay for all at once out of its operating budget.
The District has been selling a few hundred million dollars worth of bonds over the last few years to fund capital improvement projects. But it hasn’t come close to trying to raise the $4.5 billion that the facilities plan said was necessary to fully tackle the enormous deferred-maintenance problem.
Its conservative approach has been rewarded by Wall Street, which upgraded its credit rating. It was able to refinance $1.5 billion in outstanding debt and get a lower interest rate.
As of last year, the District’s interest payments dropped to 9.8 percent of its operating budget annually. At the time, Uri Monson, the District’s chief financial officer, explained that reducing the payments to below 10 percent was a major factor in the upgrade of the District’s credit rating.
“We have to continue to balance the needs the District has for facilities investment with the need to not have our annual debt service cost eat up our annual operating [budget],” Monson told the Notebook at the time.
But keeping that percentage low is also what prevents the District from issuing enough bonds to fully repair its schools and ensures that the deferred maintenance costs will likely continue to grow.
This leads to the “Band-Aid” fixes that anger Steinberg and teachers who work in these buildings.
“Neglect of Philadelphia school facilities is part of the neglect of the Philadelphia public school system and the children and educators who depend on it,” Symonds said. “It’s one of many factors that illustrate a lack of respect for educators, and most of all, for students, that we have a district that does not prioritize the heat, comfort, and air quality in our buildings.”
Roseman toured Muñoz-Marin again on Aug. 24 and measured temperatures above 80 degrees and humidity between 42 and 55 percent.
“Those numbers are problematic in a fully unoccupied school. There are 28 dehumidifiers and dozens of fans. You can only conclude that the temperature and humidity will go way up when people come into the building,” Roseman said. “How do you know that these materials that are clean today will not be moldy two weeks from now after they’ve sat in hot and humid conditions?”
He said he’s seen a document that has detailed information about the testing and results done in each room of the school, but unlike the lead-testing results, this document has not been made available to the public, or even to the PFT, forcing Roseman to take pictures of it on his cell phone.
“Previous administrations included us in the planning for the remediation. They have not done that this time. They’re notifying us afterwards,” Steinberg said. “There’s no excuse for them not communicating. My experience is that this works better when we’re all on the same page from the beginning.”