This School May Cause Cancer
Bordered by plywood and chainlink fences and occupied by a large trailer, the heart of the Deerfield Beach Middle School campus might seem like a construction site. But it's really a destruction site. While the school is packed with 1500 seventh and eighth graders, it's undergoing what the School Board of Broward County, facing critical overcrowding throughout the district, calls a "phase replacement" -- it's being demolished and rebuilt while students attend the school.
That was the plan, anyway. Instead the site is eerily silent these days, a dead zone. Buildings that were supposed to be torn down months ago still stand, empty. Two years after the contract was signed, nothing much has yet been renovated. The project is some 275 days behind schedule and hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget.
A clue to the cause of the costly inactivity can be found on the doors of Building No. 2, a large 35-room building that is now abandoned and slated for flattening. On those locked doors are the ripped remnants of cardboard "DANGER" signs. Before the signs mysteriously disappeared, they'd warned of asbestos contamination.
"CANCER AND LUNG DISEASE HAZARD," the signs had cautioned, "RESPIRATORS AND PROTECTIVE CLOTHING ARE REQUIRED."
Though the signs were gone, the carcinogen remained. It was in crumbling ceiling tiles and broken chips of cement. It was in the dust in the dark building, scattered over piles of trash, furniture, and old text books. It was in the building's dank air. Students weren't allowed to go into the building, but kids, of course, have a way of popping up in places they aren't supposed to be. And there were occupied buildings right next to the contaminated building. Students sometimes walk by the building, right past the doors where the signs had once been. There's no hard evidence that any child has broken into the building since contamination. But one chainlink fence is bent down from someone climbing on it.
Despite the potential health hazard in the school building, it sat contaminated for months because the school board refused to clean it up. By law all asbestos-containing material -- or ACM -- must be removed to protect the area from a potentially harmful dust cloud when the building is leveled. Air tests must also prove that the building is safe before demolition begins. Instead of cleaning the building, school board staff disputed tests showing high levels of asbestos in the air of the building and in ceiling tiles littering the floor. The staff disregarded the findings until the federal Environmental Protection Agency independently proved early this month that the building was, in fact, contaminated with crumbling ACM.
The building's interior wasn't the only concern; outside, broken pieces of asbestos-laden cement littered the schoolyard, left behind after an asbestos abatement in May. That discovery led the county to charge the board with breaking federal environmental laws. The county also cited an asbestos contractor hired by the school board, Decon Environmental and Engineering, with a civil violation.
The asbestos problems don't stop there. The construction company that won the $8.5 million Deerfield Middle contract, Pass International, is claiming that the school board broke numerous Clean Air Act laws and that the board's asbestos management plans -- which are essential for protecting students from asbestos dust -- are grossly inadequate. Pass also asserts in court filings that chunks of asbestos-laden cement still litter school grounds. Early this month a walk on the school site revealed thin pieces of white cement full of fibers, a possible indication of asbestos, outside Building No. 6, which is also due to be demolished. During a visit to the construction site, two students in ten minutes were seen walking through the off-limits area. They shouldn't have been there but apparently gained access by simply walking out the doors of nearby occupied buildings.
County health officials deny even the possibility that ACM could still be littering school grounds.
"That just can't be," says Jarrett Mack, the supervisor of the county's Air Quality Division. "We've been out there so many times. There can't be any asbestos out there."
Russell Thompson, Decon's foreman, also says it's impossible. "Did you have it tested?" he asks. When told no, Thompson says, "Then how the hell do you know it's asbestos?"
So a sample of the suspicious material -- which was picked up right off the school ground -- was tested at Advanced Industrial Hygiene Services (AIHS) in Miami, the same lab often used by the school board itself. The tests concluded that the sample contained 15 percent asbestos, which means it is considered potentially hazardous and falls under federal regulations.
Other pieces of ACM could be found scattered about Building No. 6 at Deerfield Middle, some of them on ledges around the building, others on the sidewalk and grass. While the cement chips are unlikely actually to harm anyone (it's in the open air and doesn't crumble very easily), they represent pieces of a larger puzzle that reveals numerous asbestos-related violations at Deerfield Middle. A New Times investigation has found that the school board has repeatedly violated EPA rules and that the board's own asbestos management plans -- key to protecting children from asbestos exposure -- are often terribly incomplete. County environmental officials are also at fault, misinterpreting federal regulations and inadvertently encouraging the school board to break at least one law. In the case of Deerfield Middle, the school board somehow overlooked thousands of square feet of asbestos-containing material. What that means is that students, teachers, maintenance personnel, and school board contractors could have been exposed to asbestos dust over the years and nobody would have known.
In November, school board staffers knew there was asbestos contamination in a storage area of Building No. 2 when half the building was occupied with students. Students and teachers were in the other half of the building and therefore likely not put directly at risk. But a full week passed before anything was done to contain the contamination. Numerous safety rules were broken.
And it was kept a secret.
On November 4, 1998, Deerfield Middle maintenance workers did something they are expressly forbidden by law to do: They handled asbestos-containing material. By federal law only trained asbestos workers in the employ of certified and licensed asbestos specialists are allowed to handle ACM in schools. The board's own Operations and Maintenance Plan states, in set-off capital letters, "MAINTENANCE WORKERS ARE NOT QUALIFIED TO PERFORM ANY ACTIVITY WHICH MAY DISTURB ASBESTOS-CONTAINING MATERIAL WITHIN THE SCHOOL."
But school board reports show that maintenance staff, while doing unspecified work in the unoccupied half of Deerfield Middle's Building No. 2, did disturb asbestos-containing pegboards, floor tile, and countertops -- causing what is called a "major asbestos fiber release episode." Such an event is defined as any disturbance of three square feet of ACM or more. The workers almost certainly were exposed to high levels of asbestos at the time. Students and teachers filled the other half of the building.
After this occurred school board staffers called EnHealth Environmental, the school board's asbestos consultant, to test the air in the building. One air sample came back showing 218 asbestos fibers per square millimeter of air -- a dangerously high level. To put it in perspective, federal law forbids reentry into a school building undergoing asbestos abatement if the inside air has an average of 70 or more asbestos fibers per square millimeter of air. The average of five air samples taken in five unoccupied classrooms on November 4 was 73 asbestos fibers per square millimeter of air, failing that standard. The building was, in common construction parlance, "hot."
When such an episode occurs at a school, numerous rules must be followed to ensure the safety of workers, teaching staff, and, of course, students. For instance, school board officials are supposed to evacuate students in the "area" of the asbestos episode. It is up to the asbestos consultant's discretion exactly what that area entails -- be it a room, a portion of a building, an entire building, or more. The area must then be sealed off, and work to clean the air must begin. According to Deerfield Middle's asbestos management plan, the board is also required to notify the appropriate state and federal officials, along with the Parent Teacher Association, of the incident.
Extensive federal regulations are in place to keep children safe from airborne asbestos, which is formed from naturally occurring minerals and can cause lung cancer. The inhaled asbestos fibers can't be dissolved in the lung. Instead those hard fibers stay in the lungs as tiny irritants, microscopic splinters. It normally takes 20 years or more for asbestos contamination in the lungs to progress to actual disease. Asbestos workers -- who used to be exposed to extremely high concentrations of asbestos dust over periods of years -- comprise the vast majority of the more than 170,000 documented asbestos deaths in the United States. Asbestos is currently the subject of much consternation in Europe, where hundreds of thousands of deaths are projected, and nine countries recently banned asbestos altogether.
It is unlikely that anyone at the school, including the maintenance workers directly exposed to unacceptably high levels of asbestos in the air, will contract cancer from what has happened at Deerfield Middle. But those strict regulations are in place for a reason. While it almost always takes a high level of exposure to asbestos over a long period of time to cause disease, there is one type of malignant cancer, mesothelioma, that scientists have determined can strike people who've had extremely limited exposure. These rare, wild-card cases are what have prompted the federal government to maintain that even a single asbestos fiber in the air is potentially harmful.
Buildings constructed before the late 1970s are generally still full of ACM. Asbestos was once known as the "magic fiber" for the strength, durability, and heat-resistance it gave to building products. Since the turn of the century, it has been put into thousands of building materials from ceiling panels to countertops to floor tiles to insulation to roofing. Those old buildings are generally safe today so long as the ACM isn't crumbling or broken, conditions which allow the harmful fibers to fly into the air, where they can invade lungs. That is why the federal government puts a high premium on knowing exactly where the ACM is in schools and places strict regulations on how it is removed.
Rather than follow its own regulations on November 4, board officials took a different tack: They did next to nothing, according to records. No student was removed from the building, no official was notified. Phil Swinford, the PTA's vice president and the father of a Deerfield Middle student, says he never heard a thing about the November incident.
And nothing was done to seal the storage half of the building to keep the asbestos fibers from escaping to other areas until November 11, when the board hired the asbestos-removal firm Decon to seal off four affected classrooms in Building No. 2. Oddly, a daily field report filed by Decon shows that Room No. 145 -- which had the extremely high 218 reading -- wasn't one of the rooms sealed. Two days later, on a Friday morning, Decon workers came back to the school, put on their own protective suits and facemasks, and removed 870 square feet of asbestos-containing countertop from an art room in the unoccupied section of the building, according to reports. Records also show that Decon removed asbestos-containing countertops that had previously been dismantled by the school's maintenance workers. The countertops, according to EnHealth field reports, were found "under a trash pile" in the building.
Final air tests done at the school on November 13 came back showing low levels of asbestos fibers, well under the 70-fiber limit. But rather than take five air samples, which is the industry standard, records indicate that EnHealth did only two indoor tests -- one in the "center" of Building No. 2 and the other in the "east center." Strangely, none of the affected classrooms seems ever to have been retested.
"It sounds like an ugly picture," says Mike Rothenberg, an independent, certified asbestos consultant based in St. Petersburg, who adds that the prudent thing would have been to "shut the building down" altogether and to evacuate the students. "When you're messing with asbestos and children, it only makes sense to take the highest road you can take. You're hard-pressed to justify what they did. I mean, you look to the school board to be a protector."
Equally questionable was the way the incident was recorded in school board files. On October 12, 1999, New Times requested from the school board a complete copy of EnHealth's report on the incident. When the report was released, it included a letter written by EnHealth president James Litrides dated the day after the New Times information request. Litrides claimed in the letter that he'd learned of several inaccuracies in EnHealth's original report on the November 4 incident. Litrides explained that the introduction to the original report had now been rewritten and corrected. The new introduction was essentially the same as the original -- except that all references to school board maintenance personnel handling ACM were deleted.
School board construction project manager Rodney Williams says there is still confusion about exactly who caused the asbestos episode. He says that both maintenance personnel and Decon workers were in the building at the time and "nobody is really sure who did what." Even EnHealth, in both the original and altered reports, states that Decon was in Building No. 2 on November 4, removing the countertops. Yet Decon's own field reports include no mention of Decon workers being in Building No. 2 on November 4. Instead the field reports show that Decon was doing unrelated work at the school's gymnasium on the other side of campus on November 5. The countertops, according to Decon, weren't removed until November 13. Other than foreman Thompson, who said he didn't remember the details of the November job, Decon and EnHealth officials, including Litrides, refused to clarify the inconsistencies and contradictions in the report.
School board officials also declined to explain the matter. All asbestos in Broward's public schools ultimately falls under the responsibility of environmental coordinator Louis Gonzalez. Gonzalez's position is mandated by the federal government, and he is charged with making sure that the school board follows all environmental laws. Working closely with Gonzalez on asbestos issues regarding Deerfield Middle has been Israel Rodriguez-Soto, a school board construction manager. Under Gonzalez is Alan Black, a site manager who supervises asbestos field operations for the school board. It's Black's job to coordinate the work of EnHealth, Decon, and other asbestos contractors. Millions of dollars have been spent complying with asbestos regulations at the school board -- EnHealth and Decon have made more than $80,000 between them at Deerfield Middle and that amount is rising on a weekly basis. While there is no evidence of corruption, the business of asbestos removal in the school district has nepotistic elements. The EnHealth employee who handled the November 4 incident is Dan Norton. Dan Norton is the brother of Roy Norton, a former asbestos supervisor for the school board who is currently employed as a school board maintenance manager. A third brother, Lee Norton, works on the school board custodial staff. In addition to this familial knot, the school board's Black is a former employee of Decon, the board's favored asbestos abatement contractor. Both Black and Dan Norton refused comment.
All decisions regarding asbestos at Deerfield Middle were made outside the purview of elected school board members. Board member Stephanie Kraft says staffers have said very little about the Deerfield Middle asbestos situation and have given the board the impression that it isn't serious and is "under control." Board member Bob Parks, whose district includes Deerfield Middle, didn't return phone messages from New Times.
The November 4 episode provides a prelude to the ensuing battle over asbestos between the board's construction department and Pass International. It was Pass' duty to demolish Building No. 2 after students were moved out of it in February. But before any building is demolished, everything in it containing 1 percent or more of asbestos -- which is the government limit -- must be properly removed. The school board construction staff, led by Gonzalez, assured Pass that the building was free of asbestos material and ready to be torn down.
Gonzalez was wrong.
During the '80s the EPA mandated that every public school in the country have an asbestos management plan. The plans would document where ACM was located in the school, and would include records of all asbestos removal and anything else that was pertinent to child safety. In addition, school boards are required to reinspect each school every three years to make sure that no ACM has been overlooked or is crumbling and possibly contaminating the school.
In 1988 the Broward school board hired consultants to inspect every school in the district for asbestos-containing material. A surprisingly small amount of ACM was found in the 1959-built Deerfield Middle; just flooring tile, those countertops, and other odds and ends. In the past year, officials have learned that the plan was missing thousands of square feet of asbestos-containing cement and ceiling tile. School board officials shouldn't be surprised by this oversight: The management plan itself states that the board "recognizes" the plan is "incomplete." The same goes for other schools in the district, including Deerfield Beach High School. In the Deerfield High plan, there are also about a dozen instances of ACM mysteriously disappearing between inspections, with no record indicating what happened to it.
In its lawsuit Pass is demanding that the school board reinspect not only the Deerfield Beach schools but every public school in Broward. The suit also demands that the board complete all management plans in the district. Doing that will prevent "exposure of students and faculty to previously undiscovered and unreported asbestos," according to the lawsuit. Pass officials claim they aren't looking to profit from the lawsuit but instead just want to be compensated for delays. While school construction officials won't comment publicly on the Pass lawsuit, a department insider says it's the board's position that Pass has done a poor job from the beginning and is using the asbestos issue as a way to recoup losses and get out of the contract.
Whatever the roots of the conflict might be, it was Pass' environmental manager, Jorge Diaz, who uncovered the systemic problems at Deerfield Middle. Diaz is a former certified asbestos management planner who has conducted more than 1000 inspections. Diaz says he became suspicious during the planning stages of demolishing Building No. 2, when board staff refused to sign a required form stating that the board was aware of all federal regulations and its own responsibilities and was accepting them. The board instead insisted that Pass take responsibility for all asbestos in the building, Diaz says. The school board also took months to give Pass the school's management plan, and the first plan that the school board provided turned out to be the one for Deerfield Beach High School, says Diaz. "Warning signs were just firing off," Diaz says.
On April 5, Pass was informed in writing by board representatives that there was no federally regulated ACM in Building No. 2 and that it was ready to be demolished. Pass officials, now suspicious, had an asbestos inspection done that found 6420 square feet of cement panels with asbestos inside the building above the school's drop tile ceilings. Pass notified the school board that the cement was made of up to 50 percent asbestos. Faced with this evidence, the school board agreed to have the asbestos removed prior to demolition.
On May 20, according to county records, EnHealth president Litrides called the county's Department of Planning and Environmental Protection (DPEP) and asked if the asbestos-laden cement could be removed without filing federal notification forms. Precisely why EnHealth wanted to forego the notification, which is required by law, is unknown. The Clean Air Act dictates that any time more than 160 square feet of ACM is going to be broken and removed, the government must be notified at least ten days in advance. With 6420 square feet of ACM, which was to be broken into bits, notification was clearly required. But county environmental engineer Bill Hahne told Litrides to go ahead and remove the ACM without notification.
It's a strange situation: The school board was told by a county environmental official that it could, in effect, break a federal law. How could this happen? Records show that Hahne, who has handled asbestos issues for the county on and off for more than a decade, was misinterpreting federal regulations.
Hahne says he has developed a formula to determine how many "ragged edges" will result from breaking cement. Then, he says, "you have to round up all those ragged edges" and total them, which renders, in Hahne's judgment, the amount of dust that results. Hahne says his formula shows that less than one square foot of ragged edges would result from breaking up 6420 square feet of cement. When asked to explain his formula, Hahne said he would supply it, but instead Hahne's boss, Jarrett Mack, intervened and admitted that Hahne's interpretation of federal regulations was wrong. The EPA said so in a letter to DPEP. "This is an incorrect interpretation of the regulation," wrote EPA air enforcement chief Dick Dubose. Adds Mack: "I believe [Hahne] came up with those numbers incorrectly, and that is not the way we regulate asbestos today."
Without notifying the government, Decon, the school board's contractor, removed the asbestos-laden cement panels at Building No. 2 on May 27, prompting the school board once again to demand that Pass demolish the building. But during a walk-through of the building, Pass officials saw the results of Decon's work: a mess. In areas that should have been meticulously cleaned during a professional asbestos abatement, there were broken pieces of the asbestos-laden cement strewn about inside and outside the building. Piles of dust-covered trash were also left behind. When Pass notified the school board of the mess and asked that it be cleaned up prior to demolition, the school board downplayed the incident and continued to demand that Pass demolish the building. That's when Diaz complained to the county, prompting county environmental inspector Art Pennetta to visit the building, whereupon he found pieces of ACM. In addition to the ACM, Pennetta noted "debris consisting of desk drawers, papers, old textbooks, broken furniture and several drop ceiling panels which were wet and moldy," according to county reports, which also indicate that plastic and filters used during the asbestos abatement were left behind.
Pennetta's visit sparked a county investigation that led to civil charges filed against the school board and Decon on August 20. The county, which is considering fining both the board and Decon $15,000 each for every day that there was a violation at the school, has yet to sanction either party. School board officials had a disciplinary hearing with the county, originally set for last Thursday, continued until next month.
The county didn't charge the school board with failure to notify the government, because Hahne "contributed" to the decision not to notify, according to county reports.
The controversy surrounding Building No. 2 was still, however, far from over. Another dispute -- this time over that wet and moldy ceiling tile -- was about to consume the Deerfield Middle project and, Pass contends, again put the school's students and staff at potential risk of asbestos exposure.
The ceiling tile in Building No. 2 is red on its back side and stamped "fire-rated" -- both signs, Diaz says, that it contains asbestos. Diaz says there is an untold amount of the red-backed tile -- potentially thousands of square feet -- at Deerfield Middle, and none of it was ever listed in the school's asbestos management plan. If the tile is, indeed, full of asbestos, school board staff may have been handling it -- and possibly breaking it -- in the presence of students for years. Ceiling tile is known to spread asbestos fibers in more abundance than any other building material, simply because it crumbles easily into dust. PTA vice president Swinford says that several of Deerfield Middle's roofs have leaked rain over the years and that ceiling tile surely has been replaced. "You know what happens when ceiling tile gets wet -- it crumbles," Swinford says.
Pass had tests done on the ceiling tile. The tests showed that it had contained as much as 5 percent asbestos, which puts it within federal regulations. When Pass demanded that the school board have the ceiling tiles removed prior to demolition, the board refused to approve the costly procedure. Instead EnHealth, on June 22, did its own tests on the ceiling tile. All of those samples, which were collected by EnHealth's Dan Norton, came back showing that the ceiling tile contained less than 1 percent asbestos -- though at least one came back at 0.9 percent, according to records. Then Hahne collected samples of the ceiling tile, and tests of those samples showed either only small traces or no asbestos at all.
Hahne, meanwhile, seemed to be taking an aversion to Diaz's inquiries -- which ultimately exposed Hahne's faulty asbestos formula. Hahne filed a complaint with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation stating that Diaz was handling asbestos after his certification had expired. Supervisor Jarrett Mack says he told Hahne not to file the complaint, as it would look like Hahne was retaliating against Diaz for raising health concerns at the school. "That complaint had absolutely nothing to do with the county, this agency, or myself," Mack says. "That was Mr. Hahne acting on his own." Hahne says he was just doing his duty by reporting Diaz. The DBPR threw out the complaint on October 8 and took no action against Diaz.
Pass continued to find disturbing information about asbestos in Building No. 2. In late June an asbestos consultant hired by Pass determined that one sample of air taken from the building contained 300 asbestos fibers per square millimeter of air -- more than four times the accepted 70-fiber reentry limit. Five air samples averaged more than 125 asbestos fibers per square millimeter of air. EnHealth responded to this information by doing its own tests, which showed only very small amounts of airborne asbestos. On July 30 EnHealth president Litrides declared in a letter to Gonzalez that the tests commissioned by Pass were "meaningless and of no value." Litrides also wrote that he doesn't consider the 70-fiber limit a "health" standard. Hahne also says he doesn't give credence to the 70-fiber limit -- though it is the widely accepted threshold of safety in the construction industry and the EPA maintains that any level of asbestos in the air at all is potentially unsafe. Even Rodriguez-Soto, the board's construction manager, says the 70-fiber limit is clearly the accepted standard for the entire construction industry.
As the battle over Building No. 2 deepened, the EPA stepped in to determine once and for all if there was a health risk at Deerfield Middle. EPA officials obtained ceiling tile samples from Pass, the school board, and the county and then conducted independent tests on each using the most accurate testing method available, which consists of burning off everything on the sample but asbestos. By weighing the asbestos left behind, the true percentage of asbestos in a material can be determined. Until then all the samples had been tested using an older method called Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM), which is a visible estimation made by a scientist looking through a microscope. The school board's own test results include a disclaimer stating that PLM test results are "subject to significant numerical uncertainty."
Gonzalez apparently didn't want to wait for the EPA results. In written correspondence school board officials and consultants directed Pass to demolish the building, repeatedly writing that Building No. 2 had been "rendered harmless." Hahne, too, gave his blessing to demolish the building, according to reports. Mack once again distanced himself from Hahne's actions, declaring that he felt all along that the school board should have removed the suspicious ceiling tile from the building. But Mack himself wrote in a letter to the school board's Gonzalez on July 26 -- at the height of the controversy -- that Building No. 2 could be demolished.
Pass continued to refuse the school board's demolition demands, however, and complained that tearing down the building would spread asbestos fibers throughout the schoolyard, harming anyone there. But records show that the construction company was flexible. Pass owner Roger Rex gave the school board an option: He told officials at a July job-site meeting that he would demolish the building as long as the board signed federal forms authorizing the demolition and took "full responsibility" for any legal or health fallout from it. Rodriguez-Soto told Rex that the board would consider the proposal. Board staff never agreed to it.
At the end of August, summer vacation ended and students filed back onto the Deerfield Middle campus. Not only had Building No. 2 never been properly cleaned after the alleged illegal and sloppy asbestos abatement by Decon in June, but now there was evidence that the air inside the empty building was contaminated. Students, teachers, and staff, however, were not notified of the full extent of the problems with Building No. 2 or the nearby Building No. 6. According to the Pass lawsuit, Decon removed 1800 square feet of ACM from Building No. 6 at Deerfield Middle in May, again without notifying the government, and left more ACM littering school grounds, a piece of which New Times had tested.
In mid-September the EPA released its findings to the county and the school board: The red-backed ceiling tile was potentially more harmful than even Pass had imagined. The EPA tests showed that school board samples collected by Norton were laden with as much as 13 percent asbestos. The EPA determined that a sample collected by Hahne -- in which the county found no asbestos -- actually contained about 7 percent asbestos. A total of ten samples that either the school board or the county found harmless were proven by the EPA to contain unsafe amounts of asbestos.
The EPA's results using the less-accurate PLM method were mixed -- about half came back showing more than 1 percent of asbestos. But even when the EPA's most sophisticated tests showed that the building had ACM in it, the county and the school board balked and still resisted cleaning it. Hahne wouldn't recognize the EPA results. "To me that is completely meaningless -- those [EPA] tests mean nothing to me," he says. The reason: The EPA's test is more sophisticated than what is called for by federal regulations and therefore shouldn't hold legal weight.
Earlier this month EPA officials from Atlanta and Washington, D.C., got county and school board officials on a four-way call, Hahne says. EPA officials told the school board that they had to demolish the building, says Hahne. Decon is now in the process of removing the ceiling tile and cleaning out Building No. 2. Pass' concerns about Building No. 6, however, still haven't been addressed, Diaz says. And the pieces of cement with asbestos that litter the school grounds are still, as far as is known, lying there.
The asbestos "DANGER" signs were put back on Building No. 2 -- and this time they haven't been ripped down.
The PTA's Swinford has dealt with the school board for years. His daughter is an eighth grader at Deerfield Middle, and he's currently the chairman of Deerfield Middle's Advisory Forum, which makes recommendations on child safety. Like most people who are outside the school board's tight facilities-department loop, Swinford wasn't informed of the asbestos problems at Deerfield Middle. He says it doesn't surprise him, as anytime parents have concerns about the renovation project, they've been "stonewalled" by school board staff.
Swinford did say something interesting when he learned of the November 4 episode. He says he was "amazed," but not surprised. Swinford has dealt often enough with the vast school board bureaucracy -- which has a $2.2 billion annual budget -- to know better than to expect sound decisions and forthrightness from it. The construction department is currently being reinvestigated by the State Attorney's Office after an extensive state grand jury investigation two years ago that uncovered corruption and tens of millions of wasted dollars but produced no criminal charge. School board members themselves often complain that they don't trust officials in the construction department and new Superintendent Frank Till is pushing to have a private company come in and take over.
"This board isn't about children, and I don't think it ever has been," Swinford says. "You would want them to put education and safety of children first, but they don't. It's power they care about."
Swinford wasn't the only one kept out of the loop. Deerfield Middle principal Walter Cooper also says he has little understanding of the complex asbestos issues at his school.
"Of course I'm concerned," Cooper says of the asbestos problems. "A lot is being said about the building and about the school. But I can't get myself involved in something I can't control."
And the school board is still, to borrow Swinford's word, stonewalling. School board officials have steadfastly refused comment on Deerfield Middle asbestos issues. When asked if he would explain the school board's actions at Deerfield Middle, Gonzalez said, "Absolutely not." Gonzalez and other officials are staying quiet, they say, because of the Pass lawsuit. School board attorney Ed Marko says he made the recommendation that officials keep mum on the issue. But school board member Kraft, when she learned of the problems, said she's going to find out more.
"It's disturbing," she said. "I'm certainly going to look into it."
Swinford also says it's his obligation, as a parent and PTA official, to get more information. He says the Advisory Forum will begin its own investigation into the matter and determine what, if anything, should be done, saying: "We need to get answers."
Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address:
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.