Monroe families, teachers await building’s test results

MONROE — A renovation of Sky Valley Education Center over the summer was meant to put an end to health concerns raised last year about the building.

Now, the Monroe School District is waiting on another round of tests to see if issues with air quality and chemicals have resurfaced.

The district announced Wednesday that seven areas in the school, including two classrooms, are closed for testing.

School officials first learned of health issues at the building in fall 2015. The Snohomish Health District started receiving complaints that December, environmental health director Jeff Ketchel said. About 120 complaints came in.

Reported symptoms include upper respiratory problems, neurological issues and precocious puberty, when children’s bodies begin maturing earlier than normal, Ketchel said.

The school district hired a consultant to test for contaminants. Tests found PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which are man-made chemicals. Manufacturing of PCBs was stopped in the U.S. in the 1970s because they were linked to harmful health and environmental effects. Parts of the building that houses Sky Valley were built in the 1950s and 1960s.

The school and health district have said there is no confirmed link between PCBs and the symptoms. Problems have been connected to poor air quality, superintendent Fredrika Smith said.

This summer, the school district spent more than $1 million on fixes. Work included removing or sealing potential PCB sources, such as fluorescent light fixtures. Workers also repaired the ventilation system and removed carpet. The district committed to quarterly air tests.

Samples collected in December showed PCBs in seven areas. A follow-up test came back clean. The school district sent a letter to families explaining the test results were false positives and the consultants determined they’d mishandled samples.

The health district, which tracked school officials’ plans to address issues at the building and gave approval for it to open in September, has not received complaints this school year, Ketchel said. Along with poor ventilation, health issues last year likely were connected to housekeeping problems that contributed to the spread of allergens, he said.

The district added more custodians and an HVAC specialist, Smith said.

Smith confirmed that multiple Sky Valley teachers have switched schools. She was not sure how many families or teachers have left due to health concerns.

The education center is home to the district’s parent partnership program. About 850 home-schooled students in kindergarten through 12th grade take some classes there.

Parents say they love Sky Valley, where teachers and families are friends, and students rely on each other in their learning. Still, some are leaving.

Maya Eleazer said her 14-year-old son is done with that school Monday. He’s been going to Sky Valley since he was 3 with his mom and older sister.

When PCB tests were done last year, Eleazer wasn’t concerned. She figured the district would fix any big problems. But as she read more about PCBs, she started worrying about the risks they can pose to long-term health, a topic that still is under study by medical professionals. She debated all summer whether her son should go back to Sky Valley. Then the district notified parents that post-renovation tests showed it was clear of PCBs.

She’s frustrated that officials didn’t share the recent test results with families sooner. She got the notice of closures Wednesday. One letter to the district from the testing company is dated Feb. 1. The gap from when officials knew about the tests and when they told parents damaged Eleazer’s trust in the district.

“Their job is to protect our kids and make sure they go to school in a safe environment,” she said.

Amiee Lambright has three children at Sky Valley. They haven’t been sick, but friends and teachers have.

“We really miss our teachers and friends that have had to leave the program,” she said. “That’s not something that can easily be replaced in my kids’ lives.”

Because programs at Sky Valley focus on group learning, people leaving caused disruption last year, she said.

She also is upset the district didn’t talk to parents sooner. Her children had been in several of the areas being tested only hours before they closed, she said.

Lambright and Eleazer are among parents who would like to see Sky Valley programs relocated. That isn’t possible at this time, Smith said. There isn’t a good space for 850 students, and moving only certain age groups or subjects would detract from the learning environment.

Jenny Toutonghi, who started teaching in the Sky Valley programs in 2005, decided at the end of last year to switch schools. She now teaches at Maltby Elementary.

“I never wanted to leave, but I left because of the health risk,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine teaching somewhere where children’s health might be at risk.”

Polly Muller has taught at Sky Valley for 10 years, five of them in the current building. She’s now on leave after symptoms flared up last year: burning lungs and eyes, coughing and congestion. She took time off but hoped to come back this fall after the renovation. The district worked hard to fix the problems, she said. But within a week of returning, she was sick.

“What I would wish for is we would get moved so I could have my class back, but I know this is about more than people’s wishes,” she said. “I don’t know what the answer is. I understand this from both sides.”

The school district expects test results from a new consultant in the next few days. If the results come back clean, the seven rooms will reopen.

The rest of the school is operating as normal.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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