Moldy school on City Council’s radar

June 12, 2009
By

DAVID TABER

Local hearing planned for later this month

SOUTH ST. AREA—Seemingly chronic air quality issues at Jamaica Plain’s Agassiz Elementary School—a school proposed for expansion to K-8 under a recently shelved Boston Public Schools (BPS) rezoning plan—are raising concerns from city councilors for the second time.

In a recent Gazette interview, City Councilor John Tobin questioned whether the building should be left standing.

Tobin and City Councilor Chuck Turner co-sponsored an order June 3 calling for a hearing to learn more about environmental problems at the school at the 20 Child St. school building.

The issue also came up at the City Council’s May 20 meeting at JP’s English High School—the first in a se-ries of on the road council meetings planned for different city neighborhoods. At that meeting city councilor and mayoral candidate Michael Flaherty and Turner put forward a proposal for better monitoring of air quality at school buildings, and Tobin said the Agassiz was a prime example.

“It’s been a tough place, air quality-wise, for a long time,” Tobin told the Gazette.

The Agassiz was one of two JP schools that would have seen major changes under a recent proposal to switch the school district from a three-zone to five-zone system. [See related article.]

Under the proposed changes, the elementary school would have been turned into a K-8 to help deal with a shortfall of middle school seats in the proposed Zone 3, which includes all of JP.

Tobin and others, including BPS superintendent Carol Johnson, have said that K-8 schools are popular with parents because of the continuity they add to children’s education. At the Curley School at 493 Centre St., formerly independent middle and elementary schools were recently merged to form a K-8.

Agassiz Principal Maria Cordon directed Gazette requests for comment for this article to the BPS communica-tions department. BPS spokesperson Chris Horan and the Boston Teacher’s Union did not respond to Gazette re-quests for comment about the Agassiz by press time.

According to Turner and Tobin’s council order, “despite the investment of millions of dollars” in the school “since the mid-1990s, there continue to be problems with water infiltration, apparently leading to a continuation of mold and air quality problems.”

About a decade ago, Maura Hennigan, who then represented JP on the City Council, led a charge for air qual-ity monitoring at city schools. Hennigan, who ran for mayor in 2005, played a leading role in crafting rules requiring annual air quality testing for Boston public schools.

But, Tobin said, the problems at the Agassiz seem to be recurring. “You hear from teachers and nurses about nosebleeds, asthma and headaches, and it’s allegedly from the leaks and the mold. Those are the com-plaints you hear,” he said.

At a meeting with community journalists last month to discuss BPS’s rezoning plan, BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson did not mention concerns about air quality when asked about the Agassiz expansion plan.

Tobin said he suspects the schools petri dish reputation might have something to do with low enrollment. The school has a capacity of 900 but “only 500 students go there,” he said. “There is something wrong outside of the teaching and learning going on there.”

The Agassiz is one of a number of BPS schools designated as underperforming “Commonwealth priority” schools by the state. At the May press briefing, Johnson said significant resources are being dedicated to turning those schools around.

Tobin questioned whether the current Agassiz school building should even still be standing.

“Do you knock down the Agassiz and build a new school there?…Are there funds available, like for federal housing?” he asked.

He said another possibility might be to move the Agassiz into the Fuller School building in Parkside, which will be vacated next year year when the International High School moves.

But for starters, Tobin said he hopes to get as many teachers, parents and students as possible to testify at the upcoming hearing, which will be held by the council’s Education Committee, and is scheduled for, Thursday, June 25, 3:30pm at the Agassiz.