Parents criticize school district for dragging feet, lack of transparency.
Posted: Wednesday, March 26, 2014 7:30 am
By Knowles Adkisson
Roughly 50 Malibu High School parents and students representing a new advocacy organization scolded the Santa Monica-Malibu board of education (BOE) last week for taking too much time to test for toxins on the school’s campus, and demanded a role in the testing.
The group, called Malibu Unites, said the district’s response since the presence of toxins were revealed in October had engendered distrust in the Malibu community, and requested that an independent expert be hired to verify testing results.
“We will never be able to remove the cloud of suspicion and concern that surrounds the campus unless people trust the results of the testing and the people trust the results of the remediation [cleanup],” said Malibu Unites President Jennifer DeNicola, a mother of two children. “The district cannot expect to achieve this trust unless the testing and the remediation are done timely, transparently and are verifiable.”
PCBs, lead and other toxins were discovered in the Malibu Middle School quad during an environmental review of the campus in 2010, but the district did not widely inform parents of remediation work performed in 2011 to remove the contaminated soil. Some teachers at the campus believe the toxins may be responsible for a series of health issues among the staff, including several cases of thyroid cancer.
The issue of communication between the BOE, which consists of Santa Monica residents, and the Malibu community, was brought up several times, including by Malibu City Councilman John Sibert. Boardmembers defended the district’s response to findings of elevated toxins on campus, arguing that continued emails to parents from Supt. Sandra Lyon and updates on the high school website had kept parents informed.
“We’re a little bit baffled about what suggestions you might have about communications, because I do think our superintendent has been doing her best about communication,” Boardmember Laurie Lieberman told Sibert. “[She has] been putting out weekly updates.”
Sibert suggested sharing the latest information about the testing process on the City of Malibu’s website, and several boardmembers said the city could easily take information from its own website.
They also said making sure testing met standards from state and local government agencies explained why contaminated soils had not yet been tested after health concerns raised by some MHS teachers were first made public in early October.
The district conducted air testing of classrooms over winter break in the main middle school building, through previous consultant the Phylmar Group, but has yet to test soil on the campus. It plans to have the soil tested by Environ, an environmental consultant hired after the district parted ways with Phylmar, and the state’s Department of Toxic Substances (DTSC) as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are also involved.
In a prepared statement before public comment, Lyon said the district continues to hear a “lot of criticism about reporting and communication that was done during initial investigations.”
However, she said that while she knows “how frustrated everyone is,” working with both Environ, state and federal authorities, “we can’t be [both] quick and thorough.”
DeNicola requested the district hire an independent environmental expert, chosen by Malibu Unites, who would work alongside Environ, the EPA and the DTSC. The contractor would be granted access to all environmental reports, raw data and input on testing protocol. DeNicola also requested the district expand its scope to include tests for air, soil, water and dust testing at the campuses of Juan Cabrillo Elementary School, Malibu High School and Malibu Middle School.
When Boardmember Oscar de la Torre asked DeNicola if she was requesting the district pay for the independent expert and the extra testing, DeNicola responded that “we have a couple of different choices, but what we’re asking is that you set aside funds.”
Later, de la Torre also asked Malibu City Councilmember Laura Rosenthal, who spoke on the issue, to comment on whether the City of Malibu would be willing to contribute funds toward the independent expert.
“I would need to look at that,” Rosenthal responded. “I know the parents, always open to looking at that and vetting that at the city council level.”