An elementary school principal was escorted out of the Richmond County Board of Education committee meeting Tuesday by two school safety officers after yelling that board members ignored his concerns about mold and asbestos in his building.
Hartley Gibbons, the principal at Terrace Manor Elementary School, interrupted a discussion about the priority list of construction projects being funded by the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
When his school showed up as number 46 of 63 schools on the list, Gibbons jumped from his seat and lunged at the microphone.
Board President Alex Howard banged his gavel and board member Jimmy Atkins told Gibbons he was out of order, but the principal continued.
“I want to let it be known that Terrace Manor is a 49-year-old building!” Gibbons yelled as School Safety and Security Chief Patrick Clayton guided him out of the building. “We got mold, asbestos, and we’re number 40-something on the list. We got zero dollars!”
Gibbons’ outburst Tuesday was the culmination of about six months of complaints to board members and Superintendent Frank Roberson about alleged mold and contaminants in his building that he said were making teachers and staff sick. Although he said school officials were not responsive to his concerns, at least two agencies have ruled this year that his building is safe and mold-free. Gibbons told the board that he tried to get on the meeting agenda but was denied.
Alternative Construction and Environmental Solutions, an environmental consulting and construction management firm, conducted an environmental investigation Sept. 17 and 19 to test for asbestos-containing materials, moisture intrusion, mold spore counts and a limited indoor air quality analysis.
The testing found “no visible evidence of mold growth,” although no invasive inspecting was performed, according to the report.
The company also found that all asbestos-containing materials and painted surfaces were in good condition. It determined that the only water damage found was left over from a period before the roof was replaced. The company found one HVAC unit that was not functioning properly and another that had a condensation drip, but Benton Starks, the senior director of facilities for the school system, said all those issues have been repaired.
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 he also consulted with the Environmental Protection Agency regional office and was assured that the school system was taking the proper steps to address the issue.
“It’s not a cause and effect,” Starks said. “You have sick people in your building, but that doesn’t mean the building is making them sick. There is no basis for any of this. None. There is no scientific evidence. No roof leaks.”
Although Gibbons threatened to “go straight to the press” during his outburst, he refused to speak to reporters after the meeting. After the committee meetings ended and the regular board meeting started directly after, Gibbons began picketing alone outside the Board of Education building.
Without speaking, he paced back and forth in a straight line wearing sheets of paper on his chest and back that said “TMES School Unsafe.” Gibbons would not answer questions about what his concerns were or what his plan of action would be.
Gibbons’ school was not allocated any money in the most current Phase IV SPLOST. The 59-year-old Terrace Manor was allocated $661,000 during Phase I of SPLOST for a new physical education building and roof replacement. In Phase II, it received $3.3 million for a building renovation and HVAC upgrades, which were completed in 2005.
No money was allocated to Terrace Manor in the third or fourth SPLOSTs, but Starks said more than $100,000 has been spent on the school in the past six months.
That includes $14,832 in skylight repairs, $40,000 in painting, $6,885 for the air monitoring, $2,000 for the environmental investigation and $18,500 for HVAC units, among other expenditures.
Although Gibbons said roof leaks, mold and contaminants are making his staff ill and money for repairs is necessary, Roberson said he was comfortable with school officials’ conclusions so far.
“That took a very unorthodox presentation, which was not appreciated,” Roberson said of Gibbons’ outburst. “We regret that he’s not looking at it from a rational perspective. There are ways you address those issues.”