Fort Smith Public School officials work to address flooding, temperature, mold issues

by Tina Alvey Dale (tdale@talkbusiness.net) 573 views 

A wetter than normal year and new energy-saving initiatives led to issues in some Fort Smith Public Schools. Those issues led many to turn to social media outlets to express their concerns. While FSPS officials say many of the posts regarding conditions in the school were exaggerated, they did admit problems arose.

“Fort Smith has experienced record rainfall this August. A total of 11.13 inches of rain has fallen in our area this month … These wet conditions have persisted throughout the spring and summer and contributed to elevated levels of humidity inside FSPS buildings. The age of some buildings and air-conditioning systems have also been contributing factors to challenges that we are seeing in isolated sections of buildings in different parts of the district,” said a post on the FSPS Facebook page in early in September.

Going into the summer break, new policy set the temperature for unoccupied buildings at 85 degrees. Once officials realized that temperature was not ideal to keep humidity at appropriate levels, the set point for unoccupied building was changed to 78 degrees, though each building has been evaluated to needs and unoccupied temperatures are adjusted where needed, said Zena Featherston Marshall, executive director of communications and community partnerships.

“Nothing was ever turned off. The set point increased for unoccupied times to help save a little money on utilities,” Marshall said. “What we realized is that every building is different in sense of humidity levels good for a space.”

Temperature set points for occupied buildings are set at 72 degrees. Prior to set points being adjusted, humidity levels rose to a point that caused moisture-related issues. In some instances mildew or mold (nothing was tested) was discovered. Once issues were noticed or brought to the attention of the maintenance crew or administration, action was taken, Marshall said.

“We went in and cleaned, then cleaned, then cleaned,” she said.

The district purchased dehumidifies that were added to areas with elevated humidity and temperature set points were adjust to match the needs of each building. The FSPS Facilities Department also worked with a moisture control expert, a certified indoor air quality professional, to address all issues.

“Never has the air quality tested not safe,” Marshall said. “We will continue to monitor different areas of districts different schools by air quality specialists. We will keep a sharp eye on problem areas as well as check all areas in the district.”

Some of the schools that experienced problems were Barling, Euper Lane, Carnall and Morrison elementary schools and Darby Junior High. Flash flooding in late August caused flooding at Barling Elementary school in several places. The water was removed by a profession service and then the facilities team cleaned the building.

In early July, reports of “growth” on a few chairs at Carnall Elementary School led staff to clean and sterilize chairs. No reports were made after July. Along with changing the temperature set points, the ductwork in the areas where the growth was noticed are set to be cleaned.

Euper Lane has had a history of indoor moisture issues, Marshall said. This year was no different.

“Following reports of conditions that could promote the growth of mold, several rooms, and connecting duct work were thoroughly cleaned and sterilized before school started. Subsequent testing indicated that air quality met safety standards and fell within normal ranges,” the Facebook post said. “At this time duct work throughout the building has been cleaned and sterilized. HVAC units have also been cleaned and fully charged to ensure optimum performance levels. Drainage systems have also been upgraded to remove and displace water.”

Marshall said the district will continue to monitor the school and take action as needed until a long-term solution can be found.

Morrison Elementary School underwent extensive remodeling over the summer to add a secure entrance and walls to the open-classroom-concept building. When high levels of humidity were reported, it was discovered that the new HVAC units installed at the school this summer were not functioning properly with the building’s cooling system. That problem has been solved, Marshall said.

However, some of the school’s laptop computers, which are issued to students at the first of the school year, were reported as having growth.

“The laptops that had growth were cleaned. During that cleaning process a few of them were damaged,” Marshall said.

Those damaged laptops were among the first group of laptops purchased for the FSPS technology program to issue laptops to elementary students six years ago and were scheduled for replacement this year, so replacing the few damaged ones did not affect the district’s budget, Marshall said.

Darby Junior High School has faced many ongoing challenges because of its old chiller system, Marshall said. The high heat and humidity of the summer months created even more problems for the system. Several musical instruments on campus were affected. Social media posts mentioned that all the orchestra equipment at the school was damaged and the cost to replace it would be about $50,000. This was not the case. Only two cellos were damaged. Those were repaired at a cost of $100, Marshall said.

“We don’t even have $50,000 worth of orchestra equipment at Darby. We might have $50,000 worth of cellos throughout the district. I’m not sure, but the cost was nowhere near that,” she said.

Even if the two cellos had required replacement, new student cellos cost $820 each. Musical instruments are typically stored in the classroom through the summer as was the case this summer, Marshall said, noting that some goes home with students during the summers so not all of the instruments would have been stored at the school.

The district will look at storage solution for the instruments that will keep the heat and humidity issue from reoccurring in the future. The district also will be replacing some of the HVAC system with the Darby remodel project that will be completed as part of the new millage-funded projects of the district.

“We have learned, and we have adjusted. We’ve addressed the issues and are looking for long-term solutions,” Marshall said.

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