Mold keeps growing, education money doesn't

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The latest threat to the American education system does not wear a trench coat.

But it is an enemy among us. It eludes our beefed-up security systems. It scoffs at our safety plans. It does not need a visitors pass to roam the halls. It actually prefers walls to halls. And carpet. And drywall.

It's mold.

I had no idea how much of a problem toxic mold had become until Carson City's own Bordewich/Bray elementary school detected it in its modular classrooms.

A brief surf netted a nine-page list of news stories on the Web about mold and air quality issues in our nation's schools, all over the country.

I assumed mold problems would be confined to the moist parts of the country. Growing up near a river in Connecticut, we used a vinegar solution to purge our screened porch from mildew as part of the spring cleaning ritual.

Mold thrives on organic material, according to Carson City School District operations director Mike Mitchell. Drywall, carpet, and damp wood are home-sweet-home for the noxious stuff. All it needs is a bit of water and no sun to bloom.

The problem is especially acute in modular buildings which are constructed of wood. At Bordewich/Bray, the modular classrooms are on permanent foundations. This sounds solid and reassuring, but it means that the moisture of the environment can seep more easily into the building's mold-inviting wood materials. Permanent school buildings are usually constructed from concrete or brick which discourages mold.

In contrast, the 19 portable classrooms at Carson Middle School are above ground on metal frames, not as susceptible to mold. Nevertheless, nationally, portables have incubated their share of mold too and are vulnerable to moisture intrusion from leaking roofs.

The mold epidemic has been likened to asbestos, a hidden cancer- causing fiber used in insulation. But asbestos is inert. Mold is alive.

The toxic mold can make you sick or even kill you, although some people are more susceptible to it than others. With the increase in respiratory illnesses such as asthma, especially in children, the mold mess must be taken seriously.

The trickiest part of all is eliminating it. Mr. Mitchell estimates that it could cost about $800,000 just to fix the problem at Bordewich/Bray. That's a huge amount of money to deal with a non-education problem.

It seems that more often than not, financial resources for education are needed for the infrastructure of education. The problem is that in Nevada, the financing options for these building issues are limited. Without a capitol improvement fund to set aside dollars on a regular basis for replacement of the buildings, the school district is at the mercy of the taxpayers who want to link academic achievement of today's students to the funding of buildings.

The mold mess is shining the light on a couple of issues that should be part of the governor's mandate and the Legislature's agenda. When state leaders are looking at new and different sources of revenue to remain solvent, they should revisit the way schools are funded, and their dependence on property taxes and bond issues to generate these funds.

Proliferation of mold, especially in pre-fab structures, should sound the alarm. Perhaps temporary buildings, and buildings with shorter life spans are actually more costly in the long run.

The challenge is to convince the decision makers and taxpayers of today that real buildings lasting 100 years are a long-term investment in the American educational system that's worth their financial sacrifice.

Abby Johnson consults on rural community development, grant management and nuclear waste issues. She is married and has one child in middle school in Carson City.


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