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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.
Complete Sun coverage:
- Worcester schools flunking PCBs test, union says
- 7 things to know about PCBs and Worcester schools
- Editorial: Time for turnaround on PCBs
- Where Worcester delayed, Princeton was decisive
- Sun Spots with Hitch [Vol. 102]: PCB pop quiz
- Editorial: In addressing PCBs, offer to test comes with a catch
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.
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.
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.