Live Oak School faces uncertain future

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The discovery of mold throughout Live Oak Charter School has been a polarizing issue for a campus entering a period of transition, testing the fibers of the tight-knit community as school officials manage a shrinking budget and possible relocation under new leadership.

Some have also alleged that the previous administration failed to respond in a significant way when concerns over visible water damage were first raised by a former faculty member at the start of winter in 2017.

The Waldorf-inspired K-8 school, which serves nearly 300 students in the Petaluma City Elementary district, has invested at least $50,000 on testing and remediation work this year, according to Board of Directors member Josh Kizner.

School officials strongly defended every dollar spent getting the campus back to normal so classes could safely resume last month.

But for some in the Live Oak community, diverting much-needed dollars to address mold has been hard to support when the school is working through a fluctuating $2.5 million budget.

“Some people look at (the mold issue) and say, ‘It’s not a real problem. It’s a few people who are being oversensitive,’” Kizner said, “and because it’s not affecting their kids, they can say that … but that’s not the right way to look at it.”

In March, environmental specialists found water damage and elevated spore counts in several buildings throughout the Live Oak campus, although not every building was tested.

One building, the former hand-working classroom, was permanently closed in spring 2018 after mushrooms began growing out of the window sill and the wall beneath it had become soft.

The former handwork teacher left the school in December due to mold-related illnesses. Several students have also been diagnosed with Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome, or CIRS, an acute illness often caused by exposure to biotoxins in water damaged buildings. Mold at home also played a role for multiple families that were diagnosed.

The parents of children with CIRS and the former handwork teacher were critical of the allegedly inadequate response by former Executive Director Matthew Morgan, who closed off the mushroom-infested classroom months after it had been first brought to his attention at the end of 2017.

They believe more should have been done sooner to curb the amount of daily exposure for students and faculty on a campus that already had vulnerabilities. More than half of the student body is medically-exempt from vaccinations due to some type of compromising illness or condition.

The discussion around mold only became public in March when the school held two public forums, according to a letter to the community sent out on April 9. Some parents said they went months without a response from Morgan, and that the letter only came after a formal complaint had been filed.

Morgan, now the superintendent/principal of Harmony Union School District in Occidental, did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.

Live Oak reportedly had a roughly $170,000 deficit for the 2018-19 school year, prompting cuts to various specialty areas to help balance the budget this term.

Additionally, when Live Oak renewed its charter last year, Petaluma City Schools remapped the elementary district, a move that will likely result in the loss of a $200,000 bedrock in state grant funds.

Kizner was adamant that the budget deficit should be separated from a public health issue like a mold outbreak, but some parents said it’s become a wedge in the community.

Those calling for stronger measures to better sanitize susceptible areas of the campus said they’ve been ostracized, referred to as “mold people” with an agenda that could impact the viability of the school, said one parent, who requested anonymity to safeguard their children’s privacy.

“My intention is not to be negative, but get things fixed,” the parent said.

Contentious comment threads and posts about the mold in a community Facebook group were also deleted, according to multiple parents. One post was by a mother that was new to the school and sought help in reading the mold reports provided by the administration.

The thread supposedly exploded and was later deleted. Her child did not return to Live Oak this year.

First-year Executive Director Justin Tomola, the former principal of Brooks Elementary School in Windsor, said there are differing priorities within the community right now, and that has made the issue of mold ripe for tension.

“Some of the extra stress that’s in our community also has to do with the lease of the fairgrounds and what’s the vision for the future,” he said. “I think some people are enamored with our beautiful campus, but I also think people are sensing that the city is taking it over at some point.”

The school is housed in a series of buildings along Gnoss Concourse, the main access road inside the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, which has been Live Oak’s home for most of the 18 years it’s existed.

The fairgrounds leases the entirety of the 61-acre property from the city, but the current 50-year contract expires in 2023. City officials are trying to balance the agricultural heritage of the site and the beloved Sonoma-Marin Fair while transforming the remaining space into a greater revenue generator for Petaluma’s cash-strapped coffers.

That reality makes Live Oak’s future at the fairgrounds uncertain, and has been a source of angst within the community, Tomola said. The school is in the final year of its current three-year lease.

Kizner said the school is optimistic it can remain at the fairgrounds, a centralized location that’s accessible for local families, and right off Highway 101 for commuters. He anticipates the school’s estimated $1.8 million share of Measure E funds, a $21 million bond for local elementary schools, could jumpstart a potential land acquisition when a new deal between the city and fairgrounds is in place.

Fairgrounds CEO Allison Keaney, who took over as the organization’s top official in March 2018, said she first became aware of the mold issue in December.

After environmental specialists came forward with recommendations in April, she sat down with Morgan, and the two decided how they should approach each item, she said. There are no government standards for mold, which means every prescribed remediation plan is unique.

The fairgrounds had already planned to replace the roof of the middle school building, which was done this summer. The skylights and about 100 ceiling tiles were replaced. They also created a vegetation-free perimeter around the building, installed new gutters and removed the downspouts.

When follow-up tests found elevated spore counts lingered just before the 2019-20 school year started, the school commissioned professional air scrubbing and carpeting cleaning, which was enough to get a normal ecological reading to allow school to safely begin.

Multiple classrooms have undergone various levels of remediation work over the course of the year.

Keaney estimated the fairgrounds has invested more than $100,000 on repairs. Under the current lease, the school is responsible for general maintenance and the fairgrounds handles larger facility issues, she said.

While the fate of tenants like Live Oak remains unclear as negotiations for the fairgrounds approach, Keaney said health, safety and security come first – even if it means investing in buildings that might not have a long-term future.

“You’d always maybe spend more money if you knew what was happening in the long haul, but that doesn’t mean we neglect something needed right now,” she said.

For now, the school has reached a healthy enough baseline to put the new administration and most of the community at ease. Live Oak officials anticipate the next board meeting on Sept. 12 to include a robust discussion about forming an air quality committee and establishing a system for monitoring susceptible areas of the campus.

School officials believe this saga is something its community can get through, and are hopeful that with more proactive planning they can lead to an effective response if hazardous conditions arise in the future.

“We’ve learned a lesson that this doesn’t just go away. You can’t pretend it’s just done forever, especially in a climate like ours,” Kizner said. “I think they want to know that someone is going to pay attention in whatever the appropriate way means, and they’re not going to have to be the one saying, ‘It’s been eight months, has somebody checked this out again?’ They want to know the administration or the board or a committee is following through on that.”

For those trying to get their health back to normal, planning ahead means something different now. After a tumultuous two years, missing school, visiting doctors and questioning administrators, some meet every action with cynicism.

“Can Live Oak survive as a school in the facility it currently has?” one parent said. “As a parent, I want to make sure my children are in a safe and nurturing environment. Right now, I don’t believe that’s happening, and I know other parents feel that way.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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