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Senate Public Hearing Spotlights Woodson Woes

Oct. 19, 2005 – High humidity, lack of ventilation and leaking pipes were cited as the cause of mold infection at the St. Croix's John H. Woodson Junior High School in a senate meeting of the Education, Culture and Youth Committee Wednesday evening.
The 23-year-old school was constructed in a flood plain area and straddles two natural floodways or guts at the front and rear, making the facility susceptible to continued moisture infiltration, said Brent E. Blyden, Education Department facilities planner and capital projects director, testifying on the structural problems plaguing the school. He presented the committee with a mold and moisture assessment and mitigation report identifying the source of Woodson's problems and a list of recommended solutions.
Blyden, a former employee of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, has been at Education for about two months.
Education commissioner Dr. Noreen M. Michael said the department was in the process of asking Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to issue an exigency order to speed up the repairs to the ailing school. Admitting that the department should "do a better job of communication," Michael said she would "galvanize assistance" from other government departments such as public works to develop a scope of work for the requests for proposals needed to begin the bidding process on the school's repairs.
She said that "Barring unforeseen problems," the John H. Woodson Junior High School would reopen after the Christmas break.
The school has been plagued with problems for several years. In September teachers complained about the persistent mold condition which some of them said was making them and the students ill. Environmental Concepts Inc., a private contractor based in Atlanta was called in to test conditions in the building.
On Sept. 13 education officials closed the school. Two weeks later, the school's 700 students were reassigned to Elena Christian Junior High School and the two schools were placed on double sessions with Elena Christian students attending classes in the morning and Woodson students attending in the afternoon.
Environmental Concepts began work on the school on Tuesday and reported that very high concentrations of mold spores were found throughout the school. Maxcess Arnantrading, who collected mold samples at Woodson, said in some places the concentration was 137,000 per cubic meter. The acceptable level is 300 per cubic meter.
"Conditions at this school can kill," said committee member Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson. "The government is causing the cancer rate to rise."
Nelson berated the education commissioner and other education officials for not taking responsibility for the problems at the school. "Put more pep in your step," Nelson urged Michael.
Sen. Neville James, chairperson of the Economic Development, Planning and Environmental Protection committee, said he submitted an amendment to the School Management Accountability section of the V.I. Code to mandate that schools must be deemed ready to accept students by the Department of Health, Division of Environmental Health, prior to the opening of classes. James is not a member of the committee.
Committee chair, Sen. Liston Davis, a former commissioner of education, took the opportunity to push his proposal for a school construction maintenance authority, which would take the burden of maintaining the schools off the Education Department.
"I have no problem with that," Michael said.
Committee member Sen. Usie R. Richards said the senate allocated several millions to education for capital improvement. "The money has not been drawn down to begin to fix the problem," he said. "This is disgusting. The buck stops with you," he said, referring to Michael.
"It's the responsibility of the governor and his cabinet to spend the funds and carry out the program," said committee-member Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville.
Sen. Louis P. Hill, also a committee member, asked if the governor has a sense of urgency regarding the problems at Woodson. "It's the inaction that annoys the community," he said.
Also attending the meeting was committee member Sen. Roosevelt David and non-committee member Sen. Craig W. Barshinger. The committee's vice chair, Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone was excused.
The three-hour public hearing was held at the St. Croix Legislative Conference room.

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