Parents of students at West Elementary School support the Grand Forks School Board’s decision to evacuate the school for the mold remediation, but they hope the disruption to their children’s education will be minimal and the school will be back in operation as soon as possible.

The School Board voted at a special meeting Wednesday, Feb. 12, to declare an emergency for mold remediation at West, which will be evacuated as a result. Neither the date for evacuation nor the new location have been announced. School district administrators and School Board members plan to meet with West parents at 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, at the school to discuss details regarding the evacuation plan.

The board’s “decision to deal with this situation as an emergency was the right one,” Radha Panini, who heads the school’s PTO, said in an email to the Herald. “We are thankful that the School Board is addressing this and taking the action needed to ensure a safe and healthy learning environment for the kids.

“I am glad that at West they are taking preventive measures and evacuating students during the removal process to ensure that students are not exposed to any mold,” Panini said. “However, this is going to cause a significant disruption to the children and staff of West, and adjusting to a new environment in the middle of the school year will not be easy.”

The board’s emergency declaration, which covers mold remediation at any Grand Forks public school, allows the school district to contract with service providers without going through the bidding process.

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Some have speculated that the emergency vote signals an underlying intent on the part of the school district or the School Board to eventually close the school. It's a notion Superintendent Terry Brenner emphatically denied at Wednesday’s meeting.

“There is no conspiracy theory, no undermining,” Brenner said, noting that the evacuation is simply a necessary response to damage caused by excessive rains last fall.

“We are pleased with the decision of the School Board about West,” he said.

West Elementary was considered for closure earlier this year, but was saved by the board’s unanimous vote to keep it open and include it -- on an equal footing with other schools -- in the overall study of the district’s facilities.

Another West parent, Amanda Walker, said Grand Forks residents need to remember that West “is an older building, and this is why we’re looking to pass a referendum.”

The school’s age, 71 years, however, “doesn’t take away from the quality education that the children are receiving,” she said.

“It is great that the district listened to its community and working on the (deferred maintenance),” Walker said, “but it is manageable to get the school back to where it needs to be.”

Evacuation necessary

Evacuation of West is necessary because exposure to mold can cause “asthma problems and other issues,” Chris Arnold, director of buildings and grounds for Grand Forks Public Schools, told the board Wednesday.

Also, steam lines at West “are very old, very brittle," Arnold said, noting that workers could be burned if steam leaked. He intends to shut down the heating system and bring in supplemental heat during the project.

Air quality and mold inspections have been conducted by Lars Knobloch of Nordic Home Inspection, a Fargo-based business, with assistance from school district buildings and grounds staff.

Knobloch “is very thorough,” Arnold said. So far, testing has been done in eight schools, starting in November with Twining Elementary and Middle School at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“We focused on schools that got wet,” said Arnold, noting that they are mainly those “with crawl space or a garden view.”

Because of their construction design, the city’s three high schools and Discovery Elementary were not affected, he said.

An inspection at West, which was postponed twice due to snowstorms in December and January, was completed Feb. 3. After three lift tests were done, “extremely high levels of mold” were found in the library and in a tunnel near classroom 2, Arnold said.

Those areas were closed off Wednesday, he said.

The tops of library books will be wiped with a bleach solution to get rid of any mold spores, he said.

At other schools, “the levels we found were far less,” so they do not need to be evacuated, Arnold said. “Century (Elementary) was barely over the threshold in one area.”

The cost of removing “moldy pipes” at Century will likely cost more than $40,000, he said. A spray product will be used to neutralize mold; the product doesn’t destroy mold but keeps it from growing.

Some School Board members questioned the cost of mold remediation, and the costs that come with it -- on top of other deferred costs that are adding up at the school.

At the school district’s public forum Monday, Feb. 10, “I heard from some who were not pleased with the board’s decision about keeping West open,” said Cynthia Shabb, School Board member. “How far do we go with the cost of this (since) you’re not sure how much (mold) you’re going to find?”

But, for West, the work must go forward, said Doug Carpenter, board member.

“Whether or not we use it as a school, we need to get rid of the mold,” he said. “We need to take care of the first step.”

The temporary location for West students and staff should include from five to eight classrooms, a kitchen and lunchroom, library, music room, space for physical activity, a small break-out room for groups to meet and an office, said Jody Thompson, associate superintendent for elementary education.