On Thursday, just days after the local school district shared news of major water damage and potential mold issues at the John Muir Elementary / Santa Monica Alternative School House (SMASH) campus, the school board voted unanimously to allocate funding toward investigating and remediating the problems there  — a first step in what was to be an undoubtedly lengthy process of fixing decades-long issues on the 26-year-old campus.

During a presentation, District employees who spoke at the Board Meeting sought to reassure parents that the mere existence of mold spores in the buildings was not unusual.

“Mold is everywhere,” Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Chief Operations Officer Carey Upton said. “And so, when we go and test for that, we’re looking at the question of exposure. … There is no set standard that the state has as to what is an acceptable level of mold.” 

Upton gave a report during the meeting, sharing that air samples taken in one classroom on the beleaguered campus had tested so highly for mold spores that students and teachers were removed from the classroom: room 415.

“At 415, we did find an elevated level,” Upton said, later adding it was “more elevated than the outdoor air and a particular kind of mold.” 

Upon inspection, the District’s contractor located the concentration of mold growing behind a whiteboard: “pretty well covered with mold.”

“Originally, we talked about, you know, with our air filters — we have additional air filters because of our COVID experience — it [mold spore concentration] probably could be appropriate or keep it a level that would be acceptable, but his recommendation was, ‘Let’s get the students out of there,’” Upton went on to say.

When it comes to fixing the issues, Upton, Superintendent Ben Drati and bond program manager Steve Massetti all agreed it was far too early to know the final price tag.

“This is a significant, significant project. It’s going to take a lot of time. It’s not going to be inexpensive,” Massetti said. 

And, while investigations were set to begin as soon as the school year ended, the scope of work may involve student displacements for years to come.

“To do this work, we need to not have students in these buildings,” Massetti said. 

“During the summer, our plan, currently, is to use our existing contractor with their subcontractors to do a little more investigation and do some remedial work,” he later continued. “That will not fix all of our problems. I mean, obviously, this scope that I just described to you is pretty massive.”

During the May 19 regular school board meeting, Board President Maria Leon-Vazquez pledged that the District would “go full steam ahead” into identifying and fixing the issues, which have plagued the campus for many years.

That process will be facilitated by an extended testing contract with Alta Environmental for $11,249.30 for additional weekly testing for “airborne mold spore sampling and visual inspection in accessible areas.” In addition, the Board approved up to $54,845 with Little Architects for “the cost of the architect and their consultant team to guide the contractor during the investigation and to assist the District in evaluating what is found and determining what the next steps will be. The consultant team will be led by Little Architects and will include DTR, the water intrusion expert, and JAMA, a structural engineer.” All seven Board Members approved both allocations.

Parents who spoke at the meeting offered a range of comments from anger to frustration. Among about a dozen members of the public who spoke about the water intrusion issues at the Muir/SMASH campus during the Thursday school board meeting, a handful of Malibu parents called in to shed light on mold issues they said have been going on at Malibu Elementary — formerly Point Dume Marine Science School — without attention from School District leadership.

Craig Foster, the one SMMUSD Board Member who lives in Malibu, addressed the Malibu Elementary complaints, saying the District should be “taking those same steps” in response to those issues. 

Board Member Jon Kean acknowledged the issues at Malibu Elementary, saying he and fellow Board Member Laurie Lieberman toured the campus to see the issues and added the Upton and his team had a plan for that campus as well.

Several Board Members seemingly replied to one parent who demanded an apology at the meeting. Numerous Board Members offered their regrets over the long standing water problems on the John Muir/SMASH campus.

“I want to say to the parents of John Muir and SMASH that I’m very sorry for what your kids are going through right now,” Kean said, adding, “I share your anger. I share your frustration.”


*Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Foster was the only Board member to address water issues at Malibu Elementary School. The story has been edited to correct that error.