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Leland & Gray takes heat for radon inaction

Parents call eight-year delay ‘alarming,’ ‘disturbing,’ ‘unbelievable’

TOWNSHEND—As a parent of two Leland & Gray students, David McCormack is concerned about recent tests showing elevated radon levels at the middle and high school.

But he’s more concerned by the fact that administrators knew about the problem eight years ago and didn’t follow up. The Newfane resident was among a group of parents who used words like “alarming,” “disturbing,” and “unbelievable” to describe the situation at a March 22 meeting.

“I don’t think there’s anywhere near a reasonable explanation as to why it was ignored in 2009,” McCormack said. “I don’t think there’s any excuse for it.”

Board members and administrators — most of whom weren’t involved in school affairs in 2009 — had no good answers for the lack of past action.

But they pointed to a pending remediation project as evidence that the problem is being addressed. And they discussed proactive measures, including radon testing at other Windham Central Supervisory Union schools.

“We are going to be transparent, we are going to take action, we are going to move forward,” Windham Central Superintendent Bill Anton said.

’Not an immediate health concern’

The March 22 meeting was held several days after school board Chairman Joe Winrich sent a letter notifying parents and staff of elevated radon readings in certain areas of the Townshend school.

While the problem is “not an immediate health concern,” Winrich wrote, the board has commissioned a remediation project scheduled for the school’s April vacation break. In the meantime, administrators are opening some windows during the day in an attempt to vent the building.

Radon is an odorless, colorless, naturally occurring gas. But long-term exposure to high levels of radon increases the risk of lung cancer, especially in conjunction with smoking.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says radon readings of 4 picocuries per liter of air or higher should prompt action.

A Leland & Gray document shows recent readings above that level in the school’s library, music room, weight room, and a nearby classroom, as well as in the basement of the Dutton Gym. The highest level was in the music room, at 6.9 picocuries per liter.

Leland & Gray Principal Bob Thibault, who took that job last year, said he became aware of a potential radon issue while surveying the building’s needs and having a conversation about carpeting in the library.

He said further testing had to wait until winter, when the building is “closed tight.” That testing happened in February, leading to the board’s current dilemma.

Sitting with school administrators at the March 22 meeting were Steve McNulty Sr. and his son, Steve McNulty Jr., of Manchester-based M&M Plumbing and Heating. The company has been retained to address Leland & Gray’s radon problem.

A simple fix?

The younger McNulty described a relatively simple fix that involves venting the gas out of the building, with little maintenance required afterward. School administrators estimated the cost at $10,000 to $12,000, including Dutton Gym remediation.

Steve McNulty Jr. also sought to put Leland & Gray’s problem in perspective. The state Department of Health says 1 out of 8 Vermont homes has unsafe radon levels, and McNulty said the school’s readings aren’t that high in relative terms.

“We’ve done dozens and dozens of homes ... and I would say the average test that we do at a house is around 15 [picocuries per liter],” he said.

But some who attended the board meeting were unhappy with the narrative they heard. That had less to do with the current situation than with the fact that high radon levels may have been present at Leland & Gray for eight years or more.

“I appreciate that you guys found out about it and are on it now, but I think it’s pretty clear that past administrations certainly dropped the ball,” said Marc Pickering, a Newfane resident.

A list of radon-testing results from February 2009 shows that school officials were made aware of 11 trouble areas at that time. That included levels exceeding 6 picocuries per liter in the weight room, music room, and storage/maintenance area, as well as levels of 10 and 7.4 picocuries per liter in the library.

Officials also have found a March 23, 2009, letter to Leland & Gray staff and parents. The letter describes those test results and promises further testing as well as consultation with the state Department of Health and a “certified radon mitigator.”

As far as anyone can tell, that never happened.

Anton said he has found no evidence of follow-up tests. Thibault said the only radon-related communications he has found is a series of emails last spring between then-Principal Dorinne Dorfman and the state Department of Health.

Dorfman wasn’t principal at the time of the 2009 tests. But she was principal for about six years prior to her 2016 departure, and Leland & Gray Librarian Barbara Marchant told the school board that she felt the former principal had dismissed her radon concerns.

Dorfman, who was lauded for her administrative work in Townshend and is now a principal in the Burlington School District, declined to comment because she is no longer affiliated with Leland & Gray. She added, however, that the “school board and current principal may always contact me as a resource” on the topic.

Winrich was a new member of the Leland & Gray school board in 2009. He said he has no memory of that year’s radon tests or the subsequent letter to the community, though he has found reference to it in board minutes from that time.

Defending the board

Facing repeated questions about the school board’s inaction, Winrich argued that board members aren’t the school’s day-to-day managers.

“We are given this information,” Winrich said. “We trust the people who are running the school and running the supervisory union to do the job.”

Board member Bahman Mahdavi raised a similar defense and also said he believes the board has been diligent in addressing the school’s problems.

“I would like to think that this is the exception, not the rule,” Mahdavi said, while adding that “it doesn’t make it OK. It doesn’t excuse it.”

As a parent, McCormack said the radon incident made him think about how the board will address future problems.

“This is a significant health and safety issue for our community. And the board knew about it,” he said. “So I do think the board has to own it and say, ’We need to figure out something.’”

Anton said the Leland & Gray situation has prompted a new radon program throughout Windham Central. “Every school in our supervisory union is getting tested — other than Jamaica, which was already ahead of the game,” he said.

Levels at Jamaica, Anton said, were all below the EPA’s action level.

Board members also have formed a committee that will focus on Leland & Gray’s physical condition. Thibault called that “a good step in the right direction.”

And that’s not only because of the radon problem. The principal warned that there are “a lot of needs” at the school including a heating system that needs to be replaced soon.

“The radon mitigation — the cost of that is pretty small, comparatively, to all these other kinds of things,” Thibault said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #401 (Wednesday, March 29, 2017).

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