Moldering Heights

More mold at AISD schools.

Mold currently outside Maplewood Elementary
Mold currently outside Maplewood Elementary (Photo By John Anderson)

Last week Austin Independent School District officials announced that more than 100 Travis Heights Elementary students will have to begin the school year at Becker Elementary, because mold -- likely the toxic variety Stachybotrys -- has infested an entire wing of classrooms. "The level was so intense they couldn't ignore it," said Travis Heights PTA President Cassandra Bills. "They had to do something." Brad Shaver, AISD's assistant maintenance director, attributes the mold to plumbing leakage in an upstairs bathroom, which migrated down into a downstairs bathroom and dampened some sheet rock. Air samples taken at the school yielded a high dose of Aspergillus, a toxic variety of Penicillium. More samples have been taken, Shaver said, but AISD has not yet gotten confirmation from the lab that the mold in question is toxic.

Former Maplewood Elementary parent Teresa Van Deusen says she's happy that AISD officials acted so quickly to close down the moldy portions of Travis Heights, but she doesn't understand why they didn't take a similarly diligent approach at Maplewood. Van Deusen withdrew her daughter from AISD last January, she says, after district officials ignored her many pleas to check Maplewood's indoor air quality (see "How Much Mold?" April 19, 2002). In March, district officials remediated two rooms at Maplewood, but Van Deusen contends they haven't done enough. For example, the district never conducted any follow-up testing or remediation in a classroom in which a desk that examiners cleaned, then tested, showed 37 colony-forming units of Stachybotrys -- considered the worst of the toxic molds.

At Travis Heights, tests revealing what kind of mold was found haven't even returned from the lab, yet the district has already evacuated the school. Could it be a case of environmental racism? "I hate to be jaded," Van Deusen said, "but clearly there's a difference in how mold issues are handled from campus to campus."

Shaver disagrees. The district regards all its schools on equal footing, he said. At Travis Heights, "we've got quite a bit of work to do, and we can't do it with the children in there," he said. "Maplewood had a lot less work to be done and we didn't have samples with that high of an air concentration." Still, he said he doesn't know why additional testing in Maplewood's Stachybotrys-infested room never happened. "I'd have to check on that," he said.

Van Deusen remains unconvinced that remediation fixed Maplewood's mold problems. A report conducted by an AISD-hired independent industrial hygienist asserts air quality "clearance samples" -- usually taken after remediation efforts are finished -- showed that the air in the two remediated rooms was clean. However, the alleged clearance samples were taken on March 4, nearly two weeks before the remediation efforts ended. "I don't know how that can be, unless [the district] is using a time machine," Van Deusen said. Shaver confirmed that remediation efforts at Maplewood didn't end until the week of spring break and said he would have to find out why the clearance samples would be dated two weeks earlier.

"I am beginning to suspect that 1111 W. Sixth Street [AISD's administrative offices] has a severe problem with indoor air quality," Van Deusen said. "And that they don't have enough oxygen coming to their brains to help them make clear decisions on this stuff."

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