BIDDEFORD — School officials promised Tuesday to test air quality in more classrooms and do more cleaning of ventilation systems at Biddeford High School to eliminate mold spores and dust that have caused two students to have severe allergic reactions.

A School Committee workshop on the issue drew a large crowd of parents and community members to City Hall on Tuesday night. The meeting became raucous at times, with some parents calling for the committee to replace Superintendent Sarah-Jane Poli.

At one point, committee member Roberta Bernier yelled at Mayor Joanne Twomey – who presided over the meeting in her role as School Committee chair – after Twomey tried to end the meeting without allowing comment from committee members.

But after two hours of testimony from environmental experts and residents, it became apparent that more must be done to protect high school students from getting sick.

“We shouldn’t be hiding behind test results, because we have students who are getting sick,” committee member Anthony Michaud told the audience.

“I’ll do whatever I can to find a solution. Money should never be an issue.”

Biddeford High School is in the midst of a $34 million renovation. The project, funded with local tax dollars, won’t be finished until August 2012.

On Monday, officials closed three classrooms after repeated air quality tests showed low to moderate levels of mold spores and high levels of dust. Those rooms were cleaned.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Nick Ferrala, an industrial hygienist with Air Quality Management Services in Gray, said he re-tested those classrooms – rooms 203, 215 and 216 – and found low levels of airborne spores in all of them.

Ferrala said he would feel comfortable sending students back into those classrooms.

Brian Phinney, Biddeford’s environmental engineer, concurred with Ferrala’s assessment after inspecting the rooms’ heating and ventilation systems.

“I would have no problem letting my daughter (who has asthma) into those classrooms,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s a dust issue and it’s a cleaning issue. The less dust that is moving around, the better.”

He said dust is most likely being moved around in the school by construction activity. There must be better ventilation in construction areas, and classrooms must be sealed off from the work site, he said.

Despite assurances from city officials, several residents who spoke during the public hearing appeared dissatisfied. They said school administrators were slow in responding to their complaints, or in some cases ignored them.

“My daughter, along with other students, are getting sick at this school,” said Laurie Hale, who held up a copy of an emergency room bill. “We are taxpayers and our kids deserve to be in a clean school.”

“If I had known there was a problem, I would never have voted to rebuild the school,” said Mary Ann Noyes. “Let’s tear it down and start over.”

Rita Scott, a resident, suggested closing the school for three months, from January through March, so construction could be accelerated and the heating season would be over.

She said classes would have to run into the summer to make up for lost time.

Britt Wolfe, the high school principal, said he will request air quality tests on additional rooms. “I want there to be no doubt about this,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]