By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
At 95 years old, Mount Vernon Community School is the eldest of ACPS’ 17 schools, and after months of heavy rain in the fall, it’s certainly starting to show its age.
The weather brought attention to and intensified multiple existing issues in the building. In the first week of school, the auditorium was closed due to an outbreak of mold. In the weeks to follow, leaky ceilings disrupted classes. Months later, neither of the problems has been solved.
“We’ve been battling about 10 years of deferred maintenance across all of our schools,” Mignon Anthony, Alexandria City Public Schools’ chief operating officer, said. “It’s basically that issue that we’re addressing at Mount Vernon.”
As a result of the leaking, mold and moisture issues, ACPS ordered several assessments to be conducted on the school in the fall. An environmental survey released in mid-October reported that there was mold not only in the auditorium, but throughout the building.
Following the report, an Oct. 16 letter to Mount Vernon parents said the Alexandria Health Department had determined that it was not necessary to remove students from the building. However, it went on to warn parents that students with asthma, hypersensitivities to mold or weak immune systems may experience mold-related infections or symptoms. It also reported findings of black mold, though allegedly not enough to compromise health or safety.
A water intrusion assessment released on Nov. 15 recommended that the roof and HVAC system be replaced. It also recommended remediating multiple other moisture-related issues that had stemmed from the years of deferred maintenance.
Several of the issues identified in the assessments have caused disruption in classrooms, sometimes causing entire classes to relocate, according to parents.
“I think one of the things that concerns me is that that kind of disruption in learning will have some impact along the way on kids in the classroom,” parent Erin Dahlin said. “Consistency is key in giving them the safety and security they need to have the best learning environment. And if every day you are moving to different classrooms … I worry about children with less resilience being able to manage that much change.”
At a meeting on Nov. 19, ACPS staff briefed the community on findings from the assessments and updates on solutions. Staff reported that mold remediation had been completed for 12 areas in the school and would continue in the other areas where mold had been identified, subject to the availability of funds.
Funding has been the main roadblock ACPS faces as administrators attempt to remediate the problems and follow through on assessment recommendations – and not just at Mount Vernon.
“We really are looking at how we prioritize,” Anthony said. “We want all of the schools and the children to be warm, safe and dry, which is a fundamental priority of the superintendent, and you know, we make decisions based on what is going to accomplish that the best.”
In a division like ACPS where the vast majority of schools were built more than 50 years ago, most buildings are dealing with maintenance issues. Before the rainy fall, Mount Vernon hadn’t even been among the schools frequently listed and discussed as ACPS’ most immediate priorities.
While ACPS is unable to address all of Mount Vernon’s issues right away, a solution to the most urgent problem – the leaking roof – had been partially budgeted for in ACPS’ FY2018 Capital Improvement Program budget and is underway.
The roof will be replaced in two phases, the first beginning this month and the second scheduled to start in the summer. When the replacement begins this month, contractors will work section-by-section to minimize classroom disruption and to address the most severely damaged parts of the roof first.
The project will cost a total of $1.4 million, about $650,000 for phase one and $750,000 for phase two, according to ACPS Communications Director Helen Lloyd.
Lloyd said false information is spreading that ACPS is using emergency funding for the roof. She said the city offered an emergency contingency of $525,000 in November in case ACPS needed to repair the entire roof immediately. Administration learned from the building assessment, however, that they could replace the roof according to their original plan – in the two phases that they had already budgeted – so the contingency was not needed, Lloyd said. The funds for phase two were originally budgeted in the FY2021 CIP, so ACPS will need council approval in order to access those for summer 2019.
“We did not use emergency funds for the roof,” Anthony said. “The funds were budgeted. The funds were in two phases and the funds were budgeted for exactly what’s being done.”
Several Mount Vernon parents agreed that the roof replacement is a positive step, but expressed concerns about the lack of action on other projects.
“What I’m concerned about is that the HVAC system is not budgeted to get fixed and that we’re still going to see issues,” Amy Letonja said. “And if we do see things get resolved, I want to make sure we have a better plan for maintenance.”
Letonja said it was concerning that ACPS said they spent most of their efforts and funds reacting to existing problems, rather than putting preventative plans in place.
Another parent, Kelley Smith, said there hadn’t been communication from ACPS about when those future problems might be addressed or how they would be funded.
“What they outlined in the [Nov. 19] meeting is, the roof is one small portion of the entire failing of everything in the school,” Kelley Smith said. “So they’re going to … repair the roof, but if you look at that report, the HVAC is completely jacked, there’s all of these drainage problems and other problems, and there’s no clarity … about how those funds get procured.”
On top of the maintenance issues, other parent complaints circulate around a playground modernization project that has been years in the works. After construction finally began on the project in August, it has apparently been moving forward at a sluggish pace without explanation, despite being scheduled to be completed by this month. A Facebook page for the project includes parent concerns about how infrequently construction workers are actually present at the site.
“The playground’s under construction but there’s no regular updates from ACPS or clarity around what’s actually happening with the playground project,” Smith said. “… I submitted a FOIA request yesterday for the contract and the reason behind all of that is what we’re trying to figure out, because we keep hearing that the playground is behind, but we have no updates from ACPS.”
PTA President Maureen McNulty said the PTA has had meetings with the contractors. She said weather contributed to the delay, and the project appears to be two months behind schedule at this time.
“It’s just unfortunate because it’s paired with the building issues,” McNulty said. “I think if we were just working with the playground in isolation, a two-month delay probably wouldn’t be so troubling for everyone. But when coupled with everything else going on in the building, it adds another layer of frustration.”
McNulty, along with several other parents, said she sympathized with the difficult situation of the school division and applauded administration’s efforts.
“There’s a part of the school, the younger parents, who are upset and are frustrated with the pace and feeling like they are not receiving information in a timely manner,” McNulty said. “Then you’ve got other parents who understand that it’s a pretty complex problem and that literally what’s happening, the information is kind of a moving target at this point, and to try to get specific milestones in place is difficult. I can see both sides of the coin.”
McNulty said some of the anger could be a result of the breadth of information available to parents.
“I think ACPS is being as transparent as possible in sharing the results of the building analysis,” she said. “But at the same time, because you’re being so transparent, you’re also going to have people frustrated because they have all this information now, and there’s no plan to address it yet.”
Ultimately, parents and staff agree that solutions to facility problems throughout Alexandria’s public schools will come through city funding.
“For me, a path forward means that the city council needs to invest more,” Dahlin said. “We’re not going to make it with the investments they’ve identified so far.”
Anthony said city funding will be crucial, since the maintenance problems are a result of past underinvestment – a problem in school systems across the country.
“It’s not just Alexandria,” Anthony said. “This is a national problem, and we’re just one city among many that particularly suffered during our budgets 10 years ago, and we’re trying to catch up.”
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson acknowledged at council’s Nov. 27 legislative meeting that being flexible in addressing maintenance issues would continue to be a challenge for the incoming council.
“We kind of all patted ourselves on the back last year that for the first time in probably 20 years, we had a CIP that was in sync on both sides, city and schools,” he said. “[But] as we use our CIP as a communication doc for the public about where we’re going to spend our money over the next decade, I think that’s the conversation that’s going to potentially change. … Mount Vernon’s a great example: we have not talked about Mount Vernon in recent years. It has never been something that the school board has advanced as a priority for capital investment.”
Despite the inevitable challenges the city and schools will face as they address maintenance over the coming years, Anthony said they have taken several positive steps already, including fully funding the superintendent’s budget and committing to the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Joint City-Schools Facility Investment Task Force.
“We’re really excited that the city and the school system made that commitment last year and have moved aggressively toward addressing [facility issues],” she said, “or else we would probably could’ve been in worse shape than we actually are. We just have to plan it out and make sure that its positive in the way that we address it.”