A cleaning crew is at Bennettsville Intermediate School (BIS) this week, following through on a recommendation made by a scientist and mold expert that the facility needs to be thoroughly cleaned before the new school year begins in August.
Ron Sharpe is a senior scientist employed by GEL Engineering, LLC of Charleston. He has more than 30 years of experience in the field of environmental safety and is considered an expert in indoor air quality, which includes mold.
The Marlboro County Board of Education hired him in May to evaluate BIS, following the claim of the district administration that the building was “sick” and needed to be closed immediately because of a mold problem.
Sharpe conducted his evaluation at the end of May, spending two days studying the interior and exterior of the building. He presented his findings to the board at a special called meeting on June 7.
His conclusion was the following:
“No current conditions exist (at BIS) that warrant the evacuation, removal, and transfer of faculty and/or students from Bennettsville Intermediate School due to the presence of microbial hazards.”
What Sharpe did find was deteriorated paint, water stains and damage, deteriorated roofing, improper drainage, moderate to heavy dust on HVAC filters and grilles, air gaps/spaces, and inconsistent temperature settings.
He found surface mold on swabs of caked/matted dust on supply grilles, ceiling tiles and insulation, but specified: “The limited, small quantities of confirmed mold did not adversely affect the microbial air quality in the school.”
At no time did he recommend mold remediation. In fact, his report stated: “No mold remediation measures and/or actions are required inside the building.”
His recommendations were: more frequent cleaning with commercial grade detergent and/or sanitizing solution and alleviating sources of moisture/water intrusion into the building.
Sharpe’s report was met with suspicion by several members of the school board. Michael Coachman questioned his qualifications while Nan Fleming came out and said, “I just don’t believe you.”
Based on Sharpe’s findings, a majority of the board voted to procure the services of a specialized cleaning service, as well as HVAC specialists, roofing and civil engineers to work on corrective actions so that BIS could continue to house students and staff.
At another meeting a few weeks later, they voted again, this time to proceed with the professional cleaning by the firm Servpro, which is based in Florence. Along with this, plans and estimates were to be obtained from the engineers.
The initial recommendation, made by the superintendent of schools, Dr. Helena Tillar, was to close BIS and move the third, fourth and fifth graders from there to a wing of Marlboro County High School, with BIS sixth graders going to Blenheim.
This was part of a larger reconfiguration plan that Tillar presented to the board at a special called meeting at 3 p.m. Friday, April 7, just before the district’s spring break began and four days after the regular monthly board meeting where it was not mentioned.
The plan also involved moving Blenheim grades preK-5 to Clio, Clio grades 6-8 to Blenheim, the entire School of Discovery to Blenheim, and AMIKids Infinity (the district’s alternative school program for middle and high school students with behavioral issues) to the newer portion of the School of Discovery.
At that same 3 p.m. Friday meeting, Tillar recommended a change to year-round school at all schools in the district in the next school year.
The board approved the reconfiguration plan but not the year-round school recommendation.
The reconfiguration vote prompted outcry from the community, much of it about moving grades 3-5 from BIS to MCHS.
At a public forum held in Blenheim a few weeks later, Tillar told the large crowd that the district risked losing its accreditation if changes she recommended did not take place.
At a meeting on May 1, the board overturned its previous vote, rescinding the reconfiguration plan.
At a meeting on May 15, they voted to hire the mold engineer (Sharpe).
At a meeting on June 7, they heard from Sharpe and authorized the cleaning of BIS that is now taking place. They also approved a new reconfiguration plan recommended by Tillar that would move grades 7-8 from Clio and the entire School of Discovery to Blenheim, and grade six from Blenheim and Bennettsville to Clio.
This left grades preK-5 in Blenheim and grades 3-5 at BIS, and it put the School of Discovery on the same floor as the other middle school students at Blenheim, rather than maintaining a completely separate level.
As with the previous reconfiguration plan, the board at this time voted to move AMIKids Infinity to the School of Discovery.
On June 22, the board once again changed the reconfiguration plan, this time voting to leave the School of Discovery in its current location and move grades 6-8 from Clio and grade 6 from BIS to Blenheim.
This plan did not address AMIKids Infinity, which could no longer be moved to the School of Discovery since the School of Discovery was no longer vacating the building.
The alternative school currently occupies part of the former Bennettsville Elementary School (BES) building by Lake Paul Wallace. Tillar told the board that the state said students could no longer be housed at that facility.
Most recently, the matter of AMIKids Infinity came up again at the regular monthly meeting on July 10, but the board did not act on it. Tillar once again said the state has said students cannot be housed at BES and it appeared the only other option for the alternative program would be Bennettsville Primary School.
Following this meeting, the chief communications officer for the S.C. Department of Education’s Office of Communications and Governmental Affairs told the Herald-Advocate that neither the Office of Student Intervention Services, which monitors alternative school programs, nor the Office of School Facilities, which approves school building plans, renovations, relocations, etc., had been in contact with the school district regarding this matter.