Connecticut School Teachers Concerned About ‘Old, Sick Buildings'

Teachers, speaking out with the backing of the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), described classrooms as having mold, rodent droppings, poor ventilation, leaks and extreme temperatures.

Local teachers have told NBC Connecticut Investigates that many of the schools that they work in are “falling apart” because proper maintenance has been put off for far too long. The educators believe failing to execute that maintenance could result in a bigger and more expensive problem. 

"Tiles falling off of ceilings, bathrooms that don't work," said Kate Dias, a teacher Manchester High School. 

She said that teachers both within and outside of her school district are dealing with classrooms that are in need of improvements. 

"I think we end up with schools that fall apart; both physically and metaphorically," said Dias. 

Teachers, speaking out with the backing of the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), described classrooms as having mold, rodent droppings, poor ventilation, leaks and extreme temperatures. The educators are raising new concerns about the methods of how schools have long been maintained.  

"I had to step out of my classroom because it was so hot and it was so overwhelming," said Dias, who has been a teacher for 20 years. She is also president of the Manchester Education Association. 

Dias and others have been trying to get more communities to realize that simply cleaning up rodent droppings or a water leak or painting over mold does not solve the underlying problem. Instead, she said, it can exacerbate a problem and make it more expensive to fix in the future. 

"The long-term cost of deferring those maintenance objectives is really that schools don't function or they feel unsafe," said Dias. 

Stamford Invests in Renovating Schools

“We are aware of and continue to address heating and ventilation issues at Manchester High School, as we want all students and staff throughout the school district to be in buildings that are safe and comfortable and conducive to learning," said Matt Geary, the superintendent of schools in Manchester. 

"Our community is midway through a campaign to renovate all of our K-6 schools and at the same time we are making significant investments to upgrade and properly maintain our other buildings and facilities," Geary said. 

In a June 2019 referendum, Manchester voters approved a $47 million school modernization project, according to a spokesperson for the district. 

"Across the state there are a lot of old, sick buildings," said Mia Dimbo, a math teacher at Wilbur Cross Elementary School in Bridgeport. 

Extreme temperatures - hot and cold - are what Dimbo said she has had to deal with. 

"You shouldn't be in a room that's 104 degrees," Dimbo said. 

Since May, the Connecticut Education Association has tasked approximately 75 teachers at dozens of schools across the state to take daily temperature and humidity readings in their classrooms. The CEA said that more than 5,000 readings have been taken so far.

According to the CEA, the highest recorded indoor temperature was 108.2 degrees taken on June 12 at Dimbo's school.

"It's definitely not a good thing, but teachers come every day because that's their job," said Dimbo. 

"The safety of our staff and students is paramount," said Bridgeport Acting Superintendent of Schools Michael J. Testani. "As we get into the warmer months, we're going to keep a close eye to make sure we don't put our children or staff at risk. We try to do our best in Bridgeport to maintain our schools." 

Testani acknowledged that only some schools have air conditioning and the air conditioning is only in parts of those buildings. As for Wilbur Cross Elementary School, there is only air conditioning in the main office, nurse's office, the gymnasium and the assistant principal's office - not the classrooms, he said. 

Mr. Testani said he and the mayor's office will be discussing a long-range plan to build new schools and to renovate existing schools in the future. 

Some districts, including Stamford Public Schools, have opted to take on these challenges with new methods as well as more time and more money. 

At Davenport Ridge Elementary School in Stamford, like several schools in the city, three classrooms at a time are being stripped back to almost nothing and then rebuilt in a new way. During construction, classes are in session in the rest of the building. 

"We've got to understand what is leaking and what is causing the water intrusion in the first place," said Mike Handler, Director of Administration for the city of Stamford. Handler is also part of the city's Asset Management Group (formerly the Mold Task Force), which formed in 2018 to manage not just school custodians and trade workers, but also the outside contractors, architects, engineers and vendors. The goal of the group was to have one entity responsible for both capital improvements and operating maintenance. 

 "Our goal is not to erase the problem; it's to actually put a system in place to maintain it going forward," said Handler, who acknowledges that not every district in Connecticut is able to do what Stamford is doing. The city has already spent upwards of $12 million renovating nearly two dozen schools. 

Stamford Invests in Renovating Schools

"There's no doubt in my mind that almost every district in the state has a similar problem," Handler said. "No one wants to be doing the work that we're doing but we have no choice." 

"With the overwhelming support of our staff, all of the Stamford boards, the mayor, our families and our community at large, we have made miraculous strides in a relatively short period of time. We acknowledge our work is far from completed," said Dr. Tamu Lucero, Superintendent Stamford Public Schools. 

The funds for renovating and rebuilding schools are part of the city's capital budget, according to a spokesperson for Stamford Public Schools. The city also raised its sale-debt limit to allocate additional money for the work, the spokesperson added. 

"We will continue to work together to bring our facilities up to the same high standards as our educational offerings," said Dr. Lucero. 

The CEA, meanwhile, is looking into legislative solutions. 

"We're always looking for legislative remedies in terms of money, state and federal grants. I think it's really important that our towns and cities don't necessarily bear the significant cost, the full share, of what it would take," said Melanie Kolek, legal counsel for the Connecticut Education Association. 

"It definitely is a community issue in terms of the health of our students and our teachers and our staff," said Kolek. "It's running rampant. I think it will get worse if we don't act now." 

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