Live Oak School faces uncertain future
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.