SMMUSD HDQRTRS — A contract with the new firm set to oversee the Malibu High School clean-up was approved at the Board of Education meeting Thursday night.
The costs for the next steps in a process on which the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District has already spent at least $400,000 are still unknown and the hourly rates for the firm, Environ, were left undisclosed even to the board members, who approved the contract unanimously.
Concerns about the Malibu campus arose last year when three teachers reported they had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and more than a dozen complained of negative health symptoms in a letter to the district.
The district performed numerous tests on the campus and found that the levels of PCB, a cancer causing substance, in the dust and caulk samples were high enough to trigger oversight from the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA officials will oversee a clean-up process that ensures the rooms are free of PCB levels above their established threshold.
Over winter break the district tested, then cleaned, then tested again for PCBs. The EPA oversaw the testing of some of the rooms and deemed the results of the testing acceptable. Some parents cried foul when they learned that rooms were tested with the windows open. This, according to district officials, was meant to simulate the actual classroom environment where windows are sometimes left open.
At Thursday’s meeting, a handful of Malibu residents criticized the district and the board for its response to the health concerns, claiming a lack of transparency and that the school’s soils should have been tested for carcinogens.
Board members expressed a desire to approve the Environ contract — and perhaps amend it later — in order to hasten the process.
Environ requested that its hourly rates be withheld from the document, a request that was honored through, as school board member Oscar de la Torre put it, an “FBI-style blackout” of the information.
Jan Maez, chief business officer for the district, said that they would release that information to the board if requested.
“They may not have been comfortable with revealing the hourly rates but we do that routinely and everybody’s hourly rates are out there,” said board member Laurie Lieberman. “I would say that the next person who comes along and asks for that we should tell them that it’s just not our practice.”
District officials assured the board that they will be notified once an estimate is made. Costs for remediation and oversight will be included in the district’s bi-monthly report to the board, they said.
Board member de la Torre also questioned how much of a role the board would play in the clean-up and testing process.
“Let’s say we want to set parameters, like for example, we want the air to be tested with windows open, doors open, and then with windows closed and doors closed,” he said. “Getting into the detail of how to proceed with that type of investigation, is that something that we can do?”
“That’s why we hired a team of experts,” replied Superintendent Sandra Lyon.
She explained that the board would be able to give some direction.
“There are places where we have oversight and will have input but what we’ve been saying all along is that we need to hire the experts to guide us through this process,” she said.
Last month, a Washington DC-based advocacy group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), issued a statement criticizing the district’s use of funds throughout the process.
Lyon responded with a letter defending the spending and asking the organization to work with the district in the process.
“We have indeed spent considerable resources with the sole purpose of answering questions raised by our employees, parents and the community,” Lyon said. “Our goal, as it has been from the outset, is to be assured that our schools are healthy.”
PEER also suggested that soils could be contaminated as a result of World War II army training that occurred nearby. Lyon did not respond directly to this assertion in her letter.