Contentious talks of how to effectively exterminate termites in Santa Monica and Malibu schools dominated a Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District board meeting Thursday.
The Board was presented with a recommendation to make full tent fumigation the standard for termite extermination as opposed to low to non-toxic procedures such as spot heat treatment, but some Boardmembers questioned the validity of applying the recommendation districtwide.
At the meeting, Carey Upton — Chief Operations Officer of SMMUSD facilities and management — had Roosevelt Brown (SMMUSD director of maintenance and operations) detail how his team came to the pro-fumigation position.
Last year, the District treated some schools with fumigation but parents on both Malibu and Santa Monica protested the use of the toxic chemicals resulting in the use of a heat-based treatment at some sites.
Brown told the board he was aware of parental concerns of residual poison left behind by fumigation. To assuage concern, Brown said his team spent $28,000 cutting samples of carpet, cushions to do extensive testing to find traces of poison, of which Brown said there was none present. He noted, “mind you, tenting was only $32,000.”
He said the heat-based system had shortcomings including the destruction of expensive equipment due to the high temperatures and experts still found fecal matter from termites, indicating they were still present after the treatment.
An independent expert, Integrated Pest Management (IPM), was hired to study the two methods and provide an analysis. IPM employee Mario Bazan said there were no termites found at the fumigated school, yet the heat treated school had termites. He took pictures as evidence for the board.
Staff was asking the Board to develop a districtwide policy for addressing termites. Upton said the recommended time for treatment is during “major modernization” and building rehabilitation projects.
“Fumigation is something we want to do when no ones on campus, give it days to air out,” Upton said. “We then have a cleaning crew touch-up on those surfaces. We can do that in spring break and not impact construction.”
Upton acknowledged that, with heat treatment, you also have to empty buildings, costing thousands of dollars.
“The Department of Pest Regulation supports fumigation when used appropriately,” Upton said. “No harmful effects on humans or the environment. It’s a viable choice. I’m looking for your recommendation for this as a standard.”
Board member Craig Foster took issue with the presentation and after a barrage of questions, fellow Board member John Kean said he felt the situation had turned into a cross-examination.
“There’s plenty in that presentation that seems factually incorrect,” said Foster in response. “I know it’s uncomfortable, I’m trying to get to the truth.”
After a steady stream of public speakers voiced opposition to fumigation, Foster said he wanted the Board to focus on educational issues and said future discussions of this kind should be kept in kind with existing board policy.
In this case, he said the Board has previously talked about an integrated approach to pest management that wouldn’t default to mass fumigation and staff’s recommendation to establish fumigation as the default treatment was actually counter to the established policy.
“We talk about this too much,” he said. “We reached conclusion. When we make a decision we have to stick with it.”
Boardmember Laurie Lieberman said the Board discussions should dismiss with snideness and innuendo. She said the Board shouldn’t be focused on the differences between Malibu and Santa Monica.
“I feel the best way is to, instead of throwing darts, is to assume we’re all on the same side,” she said.
Foster said the problem is the School Board isn’t an expert in pest control and the communities of Santa Monica and Malibu fundamentally differ in the way they want to handle a problem.
“This shows whatever official you talk to, there are very different takes,” Foster said. “Sensibilities in Santa Monica and Malibu are very different. Politically, very similar. In terms of pest management? Vastly different. I’d allow my Santa Monica brethren to tell me this is not a priority for them. If Malibu policy is X Santa Monica is Y, I have no problem with that.”
At the end of the three-hour conversation, the Board declined to implement a specific policy and Superintendent Ben Drati said he would return with more information in the future.