March 8, 2017

Mariano: Shame on the mayor, superintendent and School Committee!

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Wikimedia Commons

Over the years teachers and staff at Burncoat High School -- including Ray's wife, Antonia -- have become increasingly concerned by the presence of potentially dangerous PCBs and a proliferation of cancer diagnoses many believe are connected.

Editor’s note: Please enjoy this special Wednesday installment of our free preview of Ray’s unique perspective and unmistakable candor, and be sure to check back in coming weeks to find out how you can keep on reading Worcester’s best commentary without becoming a Sun member when the preview ends. Ray can be reached via email at Mariano@worcester.ma.

Ray Mariano

The School Committee said they were proud of their efforts. I think they should hang their heads in shame.

In 2010, my wife, a teacher at Burncoat Senior High School, came home and told me the teachers union (Educational Association of Worcester) had done some testing for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a poisonous chemical and potential human carcinogen, at Burncoat and Doherty high schools.

Initial testing produced results that were alarmingly high. My wife told me the School Department had stopped the testing because it did not want people to know how dangerous things were in the building.

I told my wife she was overreacting and that this was just a jurisdictional issue. Of course, the mayor and School Committee would never knowingly hide important health information from their staff or the families of their students.

I now believe I was wrong.

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A couple of years later, my wife came home and told me teachers were getting worried because so many of their colleagues had contracted some form of cancer. Teachers were worried there were materials in the building making people seriously ill.

Again, I assured my wife she had nothing to worry about. Certainly, the School Department and the school’s principal had all of the health information that was available, and if there was anything to be concerned about someone would be doing something about it.

Again, I believe I was wrong.

Then one day my wife got a call from her doctor. We went to see the doctor together and he told us she had cancer.

PCBs are most often found in window caulking but were also prevalent in older fluorescent lighting ballasts found at schools like Burncoat.

One morning, after her treatment finished and my wife was back at work, I picked up the morning newspaper to read a news story that said the union had won the right to test for PCBs but the School Committee was appealing the decision.

I thought my head was going to explode.

How could I have been so foolish to trust that our leaders would do the right thing? Now, facing a decision that would force the School Department to allow reasonable testing of a known poison, a poison that was banned in most countries around the world, the School Committee was actively opposing its own staff.

I was not going to sit on the sidelines any longer.

I went to the next School Committee meeting and gave everyone present an earful. At the end of my remarks, I asked that they allow the testing to move forward.

Weeks passed and nothing happened. I called and spoke to Mayor Petty. He was pleasant as always but nothing happened. That was followed by more calls and a meeting with the mayor and school Superintendent Maureen Binienda in the mayor’s office.

If I were mayor or a member of the School Committee at the time, I would not have hesitated to vote for Maureen Binienda to become superintendent. If the vote were held today, I would probably still vote for her. She is an enthusiastic educator with tremendous potential.

But in my meeting with her in the mayor’s office, I was shocked by her reaction.

Not only did she minimize the problem, she asserted that it really was not a big deal because at a recent meeting on the subject at Burncoat “not many teachers showed up.” Really? Is that how we measure health safety issues, by the number of people who show up to complain?

At that meeting, I was promised that the superintendent would go to the next faculty meeting to explain what their plans were to the staff. The mayor promised that, as recommended by their consultants, the building would be thoroughly cleaned to remove any hazardous dust from floors and window sills.

It took repeated phone calls to get them to keep their promises.

But the School Committee, led by the mayor, is proud of its efforts.

Wikimedia Commons/Terageorge

The highest levels of PCBs in a currently used school building were found at Doherty.

How can they be proud when they hid the fact that there were potentially serious health risks in their buildings from students and staff for years? Even when they were removing the poisons in some of the other buildings, they never told anyone. It was only after teachers conducted their own tests and after years of public pressure that they have even begun to address this issue publicly.

And still they do not admit that there is a problem.

How can they be proud when they had hazardous dust mopped from floors and swept from window sills by custodians who had no protective clothing and were never warned about the dangers?

And now they want to test the air, after they have cleaned up some of the debris already floating around. And they will admit that regardless what the tests show, it will take many more years before they remove the poisonous materials from the building.

Just recently, in a statement released by the teacher’s union, the EAW announced that talks between the union and the School Committee have “broken down” because the School Committee, led by the mayor and superintendent, is refusing to “accept any direction or guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Why? The answer is simple. Mayor Petty and Superintendent Binienda already know what the EPA may tell them: the building is dangerous to students and staff, and they should fix it or close the school. That right there is all anyone needs to know.

If the EPA would tell them to close the school down, why isn’t the School Committee doing something to solve the problem?

It turns out school officials knew for some time there were serious health threats at various buildings. Why else would they have spent millions of dollars in other buildings removing the poison? Yet they told no one about the problem – not their staff, not the families of the children in their care. Worse, in my opinion, they continue to lie and deny there is a problem.

Remember what happened in Flint, Michigan, when government officials wanted to save money and, as a result, put an entire community’s health at risk. The problems at Burncoat and Doherty are similar, just on a smaller scale. But the gross negligence of our elected officials is just as obvious. By the way, Burncoat also has an unacceptably high level of lead in the school drinking water [see page 16 or scroll down in the window below] – so everyone just brings their own bottled water.

In Worcester, we have a mayor who does not lead, a superintendent who minimizes serious health concerns because there are not enough people waving placards in her face, and a School Committee afraid to tell the mayor and superintendent to do their jobs.

Here is where we stand: After years of knowing the buildings might contain poisons at unacceptable levels, the School Committee has agreed to test the air but not the materials that cause the poison. And I have no doubt that the day before the tests, our custodians will be back in the building cleaning anything that might cause a negative test result.

I call that cheating.

The School Committee has a moral responsibility to call the EPA and follow testing guidelines that they have established. Before more lawsuits are filed and before anyone else gets sick, do the right thing!

If you are unwilling to test the right way, Mr. Mayor, tell your wife or daughter that they have to go and work at Burncoat for the next five or six years and breath all of the poison, that you know is in the building, into their lungs. And Madame Superintendent, same to you, get your daughter into the building and put her in one of the many rooms where the windows do not open.

As for the members of the School Committee, all I can say is go home and hug your families and just be thankful that they do not have to work or attend either Doherty or Burncoat high schools.

Shame on all of you!

Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He comments on his hometown every Sunday in Worcester Sun.

73 thoughts on “Mariano: Shame on the mayor, superintendent and School Committee!

  1. Excellent piece, Ray.
    We shouldn’t have to beg them to do their jobs. I have 3 family members that teach @ Burncoat (and I went there w/ your sisters) and I worry all of the time.
    Please run for mayor.

  2. I wish we could pull statistics as the the number of former and present teachers an student that have been diagnosed with some form of cancer over the years. I graduated almost 25 years ago from Burncoat, and the number of fellow students that have been diagnosed is extremely high to me.

    • Ray – I am a staff member and I attended the meeting. I am unsure of how to deal with my situation. I can not quit, I have bills to pay. I love the school. I love my students. I love everything about my job, but I do fear that it will, literally, be the death of me.

    • My cousin has had 2 boughts with cancersfirst it was breast then 4 or 5 years laters it progressed into her liver she is still going through chemo she went toBurncoat in the early 90’s I’m glad I saw this article mostly my family has died from heart attack not cancer I have to show her this article
      Thank you once again

    • Great article Ray! My mother has cancer! We belevied way before your article that this was why she had cancer because of the toxic caulking and poison is has. We have all have to come together and do something, for the past, present and the future!

  3. What about the radon testing at City View ? Is that still going on? How many teachers/staff have been diagnosed/died from cancer from that school ?

    I used to work in the cafeterias at all the city schools. Long term at Burncoat and City View. Luckily my tumors, one in my brain and the other the cause for a hysterectomy, weren’t cancerous. My sympathies to the families of ones that weren’t so lucky.

    WAKE UP WORCESTER AND FiX THE PROBLEM !!!

  4. If nothing else, how about increasing the cleaning of the rooms, maybe a daily mopping for now, until we can decide how best to remove the PCB’s. Apparently it is the caulking in the window frames that is the main problem.. Can we paint over them, or seal the caulking in, for now?
    I assume that we have identified the source of these carcinogens, and can cover them and seal them off, as we did with the asbestos elsewhere years ago.

    • I would think that constantly cleaning is another culprit, because it is swept and stirred up and lingers in the air. You can’t cover it. The covering will decay in time and the caulking with be exposed again.
      It would not cost that much money to simply remove the caulking and replace it with new, PCB- free caulking and to replace the lighting.
      This is about lives here. This is unbelievable to me. And lead in the water. Omg.

      • PCB screening and abatement is prohibitively expensive. The cost of a full survey/inspection of the building could be more than $10k looking at just the sealants which are mainly caulking and glazing. Costs to analyze one sample is around 50$ (depends on the lab) and a rough guess of 50 or more different sealant types and locations is probably a light sample number estimate. A survey is just the start because any results greater than 50 parts per million forces the building owners to act within 5 years either with encapsulation or abatement.

        it is impossible to give any kind of demolition cost estimate because the nature of PCBs can be different from one window to the next (materials are not limited to just windows, all caulking applies). Window conditions may vary based on the pcb concentration as well as possibly dealing with migration issues. It is not unheard of for a demolition project to go from 1 million dollars to more than 6 million when including PCB disposal costs (worst cases tend to go 10x or higher than original, non-pcb cost estimates). Renovations to a building can be just as costly in some cases and may half the demolition cost in others.

        Encapsulation is a cheaper alternative that will add a couple of decades to the safer life of a building but this method has its own hidden costs associated (cheaper methods applied can fail within 1 decade depending on the PCB concentration). 1:Encapsulation has to be an EPA approved plan.
        2: Encapsulation products have to be applied, tested, and retested until PCB levels are acceptable.
        3:Tests have to be conducted on a yearly basis (maybe $10k per year or more) Any seams that fail will need to be re-encapsulated or abated.

        I am not condoning their decisions to not act, and they most certainly should if many people are getting sick. However, the cost can really squash the willingness to deal with the materials and a willingness to be transparent about the issues. Keep pressing them though, legislators have to give in under our constant reminders of the issues!

        • The lives of all staff a d all students are worth it We have a responsibility to hold the School 🏫 committee accountable. Too many lives at risk. Thanks 😌 Raymond Mariano

  5. And this is why YOU should be running for office. I fully support you as do many other people who I have spoken to. I will be expecting a call to help with the campaign!!!!
    Love you and miss you at City Hall!!!

  6. Please run for mayor,Worcester has so many unanswered problems,from streets to litter. Health issues,code department. Also where are the parents of these children at these schools? Shame on them for turning there heads.

  7. It makes me sick that we have all these WORTHLESS politicians out there that care for no one but themselves ,tell me i’m wrong.

  8. I have always believed that the Mayor of a city should not be on the school committee . Conflict of interest.
    I hope this will be resolved before many more lives are put in harms way. Feeling sad for Worcester.

  9. There was one very important point not made by the writer and I’m curious as to why. I’d be willing to bet that an overwhelming majority if not all of these people involved in the criminal cover up are democrats! And this idiot writer states he’d still vote for one of the co-conspirators for school superintendent! Now that a special kind of stupid!

    • Actually, I care very, very much. I mentioned that parents and students were not properly informed and that they were at risk. But I wrote the column from a very personal perspective -staff having worked in the building for decades and who have contracted cancer. However, in all of my public comments and private meetings I made it clear that students and parents should be front and center.

    • Of course he cares. Students only have to be in the building for 4 years or so. Their risks are a lot lower than faculty members who have been there for 20+ years.

  10. So one glaring omission is that many if not all of these people involved in the criminal cover up are democrats. Why leave that out Mr. Ray? And why in God’s name would anyone continue to support someone who clearly lacks the character and intestinal fortitude to stand up for the safety of children? My God wtf is wrong with you?

    • How many of you knew this was going on before now?!? I sure as heck didn’t and i went there for 4 years, as well as my entire family from aunts and uncles to parents to my younger cousins! And someday hopefully my kids can go to such a great, well diversed school like Burncoat!! I played softball with Mr Mariano’s daughter and he is one of the most well respected men of this city! He is down to earth,fair, understanding, empathetic and a huge “family man! He came to every single one of his daughters softball games and even practices- even helping her warm up in his business suit!!! If Mr Mariano did not write this column it would still be pushed under the rug! Thank you Mr Mariano for holding anyone involved accountable and for giving a shit! Now if you would just get back into city hall we can get this issue resolved because i always hoped my kids could continue the tradition of making Burncoat school their home too!!!

    • I think that everyone that is making this subject about Democrat vs Republican needs to stop. This is a very serious issue and not the time to start with the blame game its time to fix the problem so no one else gets sick.

      • Well said Mary. Sadly many of those in office, or who hold positions on committees, spend more time blaming others for what is wrong – if they spent have the amount of time and effort they put into avoiding the issues on actually finding solutions the communities we live in would be better for all of us.

  11. There was one very important point not made by the writer and I’m curious as to why. I’d be willing to bet that an overwhelming majority if not all of these people involved in the criminal cover up are democrats! And this idiot writer states he’d still vote for one of the co-conspirators for school superintendent! Now that a special kind of stupid!

  12. Raymond, I don’t believe that I’m alone in my support for you in another run for mayor. not kidding. The people need common sense civics right now and you know you would have the support.

  13. 6 of my class mades died in the past 1.5 years. (All the same age 57) Makes me kinda wonder. My kids attended these Worc schools also. Scary! I hope they release the type of cancer so people can get tested.

  14. It’s absolutely disgraceful, disgusting behavior when the very people elected to serve and protect the public when salaries paid by the taxpayers behave in this manner. These people must be held responsible for the negligence displayed here. Heads should roll. Why haven’t Law Suits been filed? Why are people still on duty? Obviously they can’t be trusted to do their duty and or the right thing! What more proof do you need? As a taxpayer and a life long property owner and business person in Worcester County I am ashamed but not Surprised by this adhorant irresponsible and probably criminal behavior on behalf of Public Officials. It is an epedemic in our country because imho Public Officials rarely if ever are prosecuted or punished in our society

  15. So the kids health is at Risk! I thought they are the future? Or are they a $ symbol for the health insurance and hospitals once they get cancer. This is totally disgusting!!! I’m thinking my kids are safe and even the water the poor kids drink at the schools is bad. I hear “i love my students” yeah sure! I hear “i need to pay bills” well you not paying bills for long pay your funeral planning. And the lawsuits to come. I’m checking my kids with a private Dr now.

  16. What about the very young children of the students who attend this school. There is a daycare program at this school.

  17. Right on Ray!!

    Where is the Board of Health on this?
    What good are executive board powers if you don’t use them.

    Is the health department involved?
    You know the department with Environmental Health Specialists on staff.

    Of course not they would be qualified to weigh in on this and you know what the answer would be.

  18. What an eye opener! As a parent of a child that will be graduating from Burncoat High School, I have to say hopefully I have enough bottled water for her to finish the school year. She’s been there for her four years, and it ENRAGES me to think about her lungs, respiratory system and health!!! I’m beside myself at this point!

  19. It’s sad to think of all the lives that have been lost over the years of staff and students who have been in these buildings!! It’s worse that we will probably loose a lot more because City of Worcester isn’t taking responsibility for all us residents that live here and pay taxes, vote them in to protect our well beings!!! Until they loose a family member from this situation will they ever understand!! Hope they can sleep at night!!! SHAME on them!!!😡

  20. Thanks Mr. Mariano.
    If you observe politics long enough you will see the play along- get along mantra and a tendency to sweep things “under the rug.” In this case, I would be concerned about what is being swept under the rug!

  21. It could be possible that many were not in attendance due to bring sick themselves.

    This is not meant to be glib, but additionally if teachers were to be present then would probably be considered a trouble maker.

    It is shameful what the district is getting away with and I hope this is corrected soon. I am truly sorry that so many are sick and wish them well soon!

  22. And to those that say unions are no longer needed . . . how much longer would this condition have been buried if not for the action of a collective voice?

  23. I live in new York but have seen this happen elsewhere.

    This should NOT be a political issue,

    Get it done and do it right.

  24. Wonderful piece. What is the date of “Why else would they have spent millions of dollars in other buildings removing the poison?”. When did this clean up happen?

    Thank you
    Diane Duratti

    • The clean up occurred over several years. This, of course, proves that they knew about the problem during that entire time.

  25. Great article Ray, glad to see you are standing up to correct the issues in the schools. Please run for mayor, to many in office wanting to cover up problems instead of coming up with solutions.

  26. Thank you for bringing attention to this issue. I am a former Burncoat graduate. I would like to help get the word out in any way. What do you suggest we can do as residents to support getting this corrected? I’m very surprised parents are not more alarmed and speaking up. I’m sure the teachers hands are tied in what they can share with parents.

    • I would suggest that you share this article with your friends. If they are inclined, they should call members of the School Committee including the Mayor.

  27. So now its OK for school personal and political figures to inflict cancer onto others?! Not just anyone but innocent children going about their everyday duties at school. A place that is suppose to be safe! This is outrageous!!! Fire all of them!!

  28. The school should be closed until further testing is completed. This is insane, but not surprising. Any idea how long before the T&G writes about this. Gaffney should’ve all over this, unless he knew and said nothing.

  29. I attended burncoat as well as my two daughters all I have to say I hope and pray nothing happens to them.i am appalled at the people that know and knew about this hmmmm what to do

  30. It is very sickening to know that nothing is being done with this situation. What if it were South High where Mrs. Binineda left, I guaranteed the problem would be fixed. Very disappointing with the way things are in Worcester…

  31. After reading this article, my opinion is that the elected officials who are empowered and tasked with providinga safe educational system in our fair city know more than the EPA. Most likely the looming litigation and lawsuits will replace their ignorance. In the mean time untold suffering and heartache from PCB exposure will weigh on their conscience.

  32. I’ll admit up front, I’m not fully informed, and I haven’t lived in the city for many years. I graduated from Burncoat in 1988 and haven’t lived in the area since 1991, when I left for the Army.

    If the accusations are indeed true, if there are toxic levels of carcinogens in the schools, and if there are documented cases of cancer due to the presence of these carcinogens, then I believe there is ample cause for a class action law suit.

    Ray, I am sure you, and some others, are more than capable of digging into this a bit further and providing some true statistics for the community to consider and elevate this issue to the state and federal levels, as well as pursue negligent charges and appropriate compensation in the court system.

    Is anyone in the media exploring these accusations further for an expose? Have these issues/accusations been reported to the state and/or federal levels?

  33. I don’t understand how the CPPAC Citywide Parent Planning Advisory Council is not all over this. I I was still involved, with that group, I would have been at every sub committee meeting until something was done. My granddaughter carries a bottle of water with her every day. We do not want her to drink the water in the water bubbles at school, she is at Roosevelt. My children graduated from Doherty in 2002 and 2003. I remember that every year the Doctor had to check them for lead paint poisoning, they had to have a blood test done to have the amount of lead monitored. Does anyone remember that?

    Come on City of Worcester Elected Officials. These are your kids too. Get moving and get this fixed. Is this why a good number of students are graduating from our schools with a fourth, yes 4th grade reading level. Then when they can’t get into a college, or get good jobs, is it the School Department that is held accountable? No, it is the students fault.

    I think that the blame needs to be put where it belongs. The City of Worcester has a responsibility to our children, to keep them safe. THIS IS NOT SAFE. As a very active former parent, this needs to change. This has nothing to do with Political Party Lines, they do not count in the form of City Government that Worcester has, they are not even mentioned in the Election Process.

    I am very disappointed in this School Committee, and I do know most of you. I would be at your door if I was still Co-Chairperson of CPPAC. Ray, you know this and so should the City Council. I may have to start making noise. Maybe I should start attending the School Committee Meetings again. If I remember, when my children graduated and my tenure as a Worcester Public Schools Parent ended, several School Committee Members gave me Bouquets of beautiful flowers, and one School Committee member said that I had probably attended more School Committee Meetings than her and thanked me for all of my Volunteer Hours.

    Let’s go PARENTS. If you don’t start making noise, this will not be addressed.

  34. My father was an amazing teacher at Burncoat and Doherty for many years and died from Leukemia (AML) in 2007.

  35. I attend Burncoat highschool and have been in both the middle and highschool for the past six years. It’s really a shame that I have to find out about these problems on the internet rather than from school officials. many teachers I have asked seem to believe it is blown out of proportion but how can these problems just be completely ignored? All of the students, teachers, and parents should be fully informed as to whether or not the problem is significant. No one even dares to use the bubblers unless it’s there only option.

  36. i`ll be having my granddaughters lead level checked, and she is an asthmatic too .wow what the hell is this world coming too . they said it takes a village to raise a child, if that`s the case then they should be charged with neglect. Really, maybe we should all get together and rally .

  37. Ray thank you for writing this piece . My aunt worked at burncoat for over 20 years and lost her battle to cancer in 2014. I am fully disgusted with how this matter is being addressed! Is there a committee that is being formed for this issue ?

    • Right now this matter is in front of the School Committee. They are going forward with testing BUT they are not involving the EPA which, I blieve, is a big mistake.

  38. Can someone please answer this question: How can we find out more on the specific cancer(s) and health issues that have come and may continue to come from toxic exposure in these schools?

  39. Very informative article, Ray, yet so troubling. Despite the serious health implications to the staff and students of the schools, the Council can still decide whether or not to involve the EPA? What rights do the city residents hold? Can someone please explain the process to this Burncoat alum?!

  40. Lets stop bickering about who is at fault. Fix it NOW. I was a teacher in WPS for over 30 years and I saw a lot of practices that were unhealthy and unwise. Most of which resulted from a failure to repair small problems a small leak in a roof allowed to continue for years. Exposed asbestos, mold, fumes of unknown origin smelled a lot like exhaust fumes, buildings without heat in winter weeks in a row, and I witnessed the faculty of those schools attempt to carry on because no one in administration was able or willing to do anything.

  41. Ray, thank you for standing up to the City. My oldest son graduated from Burncoat High in 1995, he has within the last year been diagnosed with bladder cancer at age 39. My youngest son went to Burncoat Middle School. My grandson currently goes to Burncoat High. I am sick to my stomach thinking about my sons, and possibly my grandson being pawns in the game of governmental coverups, denials, and double-speak.

  42. I taught in the Worcester Public Schools for almost twenty years. A few years ago I had to retire because I was diagnosed with cancer, while teaching. I remember seeing the horrors of lead poisoning, paint strips hanging from walls and ceilings and discolored drinking water. . This was just the first building , I taught in for four years, which was then condemned, at 75 Grove St., and demolished. The walls were full of holes. Birds would fly inside our classroom. I recall bringing in insulation and tape to try to close up the holes in the walls. Filth and dust everywhere which we, teachers had to clean and set up with desks and supplies. Another building, my last was the old Ludlow Street elementary school building, which continues to house The New Citizens Center. Black mold, covering the walls around the continually leaking mote like teachers toilet. The stench was horrific, to the point that it was after many years was closed, and we were told to use the nurses bathroom. I developed inflammation in my lungs, the last year I was there, ended up in emergency rooms for breathing treatments. My pulminologist diagnosed me with severe lung infection. He instructed me NEVER TO SET FOOT , in this building again. Shortly thereafter I was diagnosed with cancer also. I have suffered with leukemia for about five years, since leaving this building. What more proof does one need that our school officials really don’t care what happens to the teachers? Did I and other teachers complain? Yes, we did. No one listened. The poisoning continues.

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