Terrace Manor Elementary School Principal Hartley Gibbons was placed on paid administrative leave Wednesday after yelling at Richmond County Board of Education members during committee meetings Tuesday, alleging they were ignoring serious mold and mildew problems that were making his teachers and staffers ill.
Superintendent Frank Roberson said the leave will allow officials to investigate and decide the proper placement for Gibbons.
“It gives us an opportunity to really assess where we are with the situation and determine exactly where we need to move in terms of leadership at the school,” Roberson said.
Gibbons had to be escorted from the district office building Tuesday by two school safety officers as he continued to yell that the deteriorating condition of his school was being ignored. Two agencies that inspected the school in the past two months, along with certified inspectors from the school system, have said the building is safe and free of mold.
Despite the testing, some teachers and parents persist in their concerns and their support of Gibbons.
As the principal was packing items from his office Wednesday while school safety officers stood by, a woman called 911 for three teachers who said they were having trouble breathing.
“They’re passing out; they’re saying they can’t breathe; and their eyes are rolling in their head and stuff,” said the caller, according to the 911 recording obtained by The Augusta Chronicle.
When the ambulance service dispatcher asked the caller what happened at the school to have caused three teachers to fall ill at once, the caller responded “nothing but the mold and mildew.”
Gibbons said briefly Wednesday that teachers have been suffering from respiratory problems this year. He added that his attorney will be speaking for him from this point on.
No sign of mold
Benton Starks, the senior director of facilities services, said he is confident the school is not making teachers sick.
“We called in outside people to check behind us,” Starks said. “We hired a lab to check the lab, which is unusual, but we did it just so we can say we have turned over every rock. If somebody’s getting sick, we can’t show any correlation the building is doing anything.”
Alternative Construction and Environmental Solutions, an environmental consultation and construction management firm, tested for moisture intrusion, the condition of painted surfaces, asbestos-containing materials and mold, and conducted a limited indoor air-quality analysis Sept. 17 and 19.
The firm concluded that all asbestos-containing materials were in good condition and said it found “no visible evidence of mold growth,” although no destructive or invasive inspecting was performed, according to the report.
The East Central Health District also inspected the school Nov. 6 and found “no signs of any current mold issues within the school building,” according to a letter sent to Gibbons.
Starks said Axis Environmental Services also conducted air and surface testing Nov. 5 but he is still waiting for the results.
Some show symptoms
Gibbons’ outburst Tuesday came as board members discussed priority schools that will receive money for repairs and renovations using special purpose local option sales tax funds.
Terrace Manor is not scheduled to receive any of the tax money this year, and as Gibbons was being led out of the board of education building he yelled about his school’s position on the priority list.
In Phase I of the tax, Terrace Manor received $661,000, which paid for a new physical education building and a roof replacement in 2000. It received another $3.3 million in 2005 for a building renovation, site work and HVAC upgrade.
Although it did not receive money in Phase III or IV of the tax, the district has spent more than $100,000 in the past six months on repairs and lab tests at Terrace Manor.
Still, parents, including Lois Hogden, said children and staff are getting sick and they fear it is from exposure at the school.
Hogden, the Terrace Manor PTA president, said her grandson gets regular headaches and stomachaches after leaving school, which doctors are attributing to allergies.
She said she also suffers severe headaches after volunteering for the day at the school.
“I think it has to do with the building itself,” Hogden said. “As long as I’m not there, I don’t suffer from headaches. I’m in good health, and so is my child. It just changes when you’re there for a while.”
Gibbons’ past actions
Tuesday’s incident isn’t the first time Gibbons’ actions have gained attention.
In 2009, Gibbons and Rickey Lumpkin, now principal of Wilkinson Gardens Elementary School, sued the school district, alleging that officials demoted them from high school assistant principals to elementary principals because they were black and were passed over for more prestigious positions in favor of white women.
In 2011, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a federal district court ruling dismissing the claim. The court ruled that the school district showed legitimate reasons to demote and deny promotions to the two men, who received the same job titles, work responsibilities and compensation as the female elementary school principals they were challenging.
On another occasion, also in 2009, he promised students he would spend one night on the roof of Terrace Manor for each grade level that met the proficient level on a math benchmark test.
He kept his promise when the fifth grade exceeded the requirements and spent one night, from 2:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m., on the roof, passing time by completing staff appraisals and making calls to parents before sleeping on a blanket, pillow and poncho liner.
Hogden said Gibbons’ passion should not be mistaken for trouble-making at the school.
“His passion and love for the kids is there,” she said. “It’s not about me; it’s not about him; it’s about these children.”