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Sunday, December 16 , 2018, 7:48 am | Fair 42º


School Board OKs $75,000 Air Testing Proposal for Washington Elementary

District officials say the money will have to come from unrestricted general funds

The air quality of Washington Elementary School’s portables will be tested in a four- to five-week process by Panacea Inc. after the Santa Barbara school board voted Tuesday night to approve the proposal.

In November, the board voted to have Panacea submit a proposal including the scope and methods of testing for air quality hazards. Between that decision and Tuesday, staff initiated a meeting between the consultants and the stakeholders, including the Parents for Excellence in Public Schools Indoor Air Quality Committee that prompted the testing in the first place. Comments were made and responded to by either side, and the proposal came before the board for the first time this week.

It has been a tense issue, as mistrust of past testing has fueled PEPS’ determination in getting another test completed by a company it considers qualified. Board members all encouraged stakeholder input in the process, but some have expressed frustration over PEPS members’ tone in asking for involvement at every step.

“This is just my opinion, but I’m not sure it’s in the purview of individual groups to insist on what consultants the district hires can do,” board chairwoman Annette Cordero said.

The Santa Barbara School District already owes Panacea $22,924 for pre-sampling work, and board member Ed Heron said it seemed the decision to contract with the company had already been made.

“The whole thing got out of control,” he said. “I want to make it clear, I didn’t hire you yet.”

The board’s approval didn’t come without numerous concerns, the biggest being the cost. Instead of the $14,000 estimate for the district-recommended consultant, who was rejected by PEPS because the choice was suggested by Self Insured Schools of California, the project will cost up to $75,000.

“I think we’re all experiencing some ‘sticker shock’ up here,” board member Susan Deacon said.

The funding source is unknown at this point, and Deputy Superintendent Eric Smith said the money will have to come from unrestricted general funds.

Certified industrial hygienists Hsin Chou and Mark Katchen said the cost was “middle of the road” and deemed the most cost-effective for what the district was hoping to learn with the test. A more complex testing method could double the cost — and the information — and be more like a research study, which, in their professional opinions, didn’t seem worth it.

PEPS has been dissatisfied with prior testing results, and representatives were unhappy with the revised proposal even after their input at the five-hour meeting, saying the testing methods weren’t as thorough and the process wasn’t as transparent as they had hoped.

PEPS member David Shapiro said the methods used make all the difference in getting accurate results, and interviews of staff and students in the portables should be conducted by people with medical knowledge. Other members were concerned about staying in the loop and having their input considered, as there are environmental and medical experts in their ranks.

“How you look determines what you find in any scientific testing,” said Shapiro, who initially complained about the air quality in 2006.

Facilities director David Hetyonk explained that staff had closed the school’s portable library — a source of numerous complaints, including from the librarian — in November and cleaned up mold over the winter break.

There was an apparent lack of communication on the issue of repairs, as the consultants refuse to test a building with visible mold while PEPS members contend making changes before knowing all the information is the wrong way to go about it and could change test results.

“You don’t initiate treatment before you make a diagnosis,” Dr. David Mills said.

After testing and interviews, the consultants will analyze their data and create a report. The bottom line, Chou said, is they have to answer two questions: “Would I feel comfortable working in that room, knowing what I know? Would I let my children go to those classes?”

The three possible answers are yes, no and I don’t know, and the latter most likely would result in more sampling and more money, he said. They could also recommend repairs if hazards are found, which would add to the cost as well.

Most of all, the presence of hazards could present the district with a huge cost if other schools — all with portable classrooms — need to be tested as well. The oldest portables in the district are 40 years old.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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