January 8, 2010
I’ve never forgotten my first visit to Whitaker Middle School in June 2001. It was shortly after Willamette Week broke the story The Poisoning of Whitaker. The Willamette Week story exposed a long history of radon poisoning along with other indoor air quality concerns at the school. For about 10 years, PPS administrators failed to adequately address building conditions or to inform staff or students of the health hazards.
The first thing I noticed when entering Whitaker School (Pictured in the Cheating in Class banner) was that the cove base had been removed from along the bottom of the walls exposing mold. There was a solid, thick, black line that ran parallel to the walls. I realized as I got closer that it was a trail of dead ants which ran the full length of the hallway. It looked as if someone had sprayed for ants but didn’t bother to clean up the dead ants.
It was during that visit that a staff member gave me a sample of what appeared to be a mushroom scraped from the wall in a special education classroom. The building smelled awful. I later learned that the smell was probably coming from a squirrel that had died in the basement.
I am not an environmental health and safety expert. I’m a mom. A mom who recognizes mold when I see it. Whitaker clearly had a mold problem.
Still, PBS Engineering and Environmental who had been on contract with PPS for years, had produced report after report stating that there wasn’t an indoor air or mold problem. They even produced a report the same month of my visit saying that “ventilation of the spaces tested appears to be adequate with respect to the ventilation parameters monitored and the particulate identified in the laboratory reports.”
In July 2001, Whitaker was vacated and later determined to be too toxic to renovate. After spending $700,000 on maintenance for the vacant building over the next few years, PPS administrators decided to demolish the building.
The PPS board voted to borrow $2.1 million for the demolition in August 2006.
Well PBS may have missed the boat on the mold problem but they weren’t going to miss out on their share of the demolition dollars. PBS oversaw the decommissioning of several underground storage tanks, hydraulic lifts and water wells. They also developed erosion control and grading plans.
According to the PBS Engineering and Environmental project website:
“The Whitaker School project is a good example of how PBS incorporates their multi-disciplinary structure into a successful project. Led by the Sustainable Design Group, all four PBS service areas - Engineering, Environmental, Health and Safety, and Natural Resources – brought this project to successful completion.” It sure did!
You’d think that PBS would count their winnings and move on but no…they’re still providing services to PPS. Their annual contract was amended on 10/12/09. They continue to receive about $450,000 annually.
The Whitaker situation raises a question about potential conflicts of interest. But that’s not new for PPS.
In 1998, PPS contracted with KPMG to conduct a comprehensive performance audit. At that time, the district claimed to have solicited four firms to submit bids to perform the audit but only two firms responded. KPMG’s proposal was incomplete. The only mention of costs was a handwritten note at the bottom of a letter. The note estimated costs at $300,000 – $350,000 with formal cost estimates to be sent at a later time. The district didn’t follow their own Request for Proposals policy.
KPMG came up with 230 audit recommendations. The most controversial being the recommendation to close 13 schools. An Oregonian analysis conducted shortly after the audit found KPMG’s numbers to be inflated. Many of KPMG’s findings are still in dispute today.
Research into KPMG’s background suggests that KPMG might have been motivated by their desire to profit from PPS closures. KPMG was a partner in a for-profit education management company. They used public school system audits to gain entry into schools.
KPMG was actively involved in pushing charter school legislation, vouchers and privatization. It makes you wonder why the PPS board would have approved a contract with a company hostile to public education.
Now we have Magellan. The Magellan website states:
Magellan K-12 is a specialty consulting firm providing services to education clients nationwide. The firm is focused solely on the K-12 marketplace and provides Educational Adequacy and Suitability Assessments. The firm develops educational standards and specifications, architectural programs, site selections, enrollment projections, geographic information systems, economic models, bond programs, and construction implementation plans.
Once again…one stop shopping. Magellan can identify problems with PPS facilities, make recommendations about renovations and new construction, and manage all projects.
Not surprisingly many of the PPS staffers involved in today’s questionable contracts are the same people who brought us PBS Engineering and Environmental and KPMG.
I agree with the little girl. There’s a fungus among us. What do you think?
Carrie Adams blogs at Cheating in Class.