A Hummel Report Investigation
Rhode Island’s oldest charter school had to scramble last year when the long-time lease on its building in Providence was not renewed. It wound up moving into a vacant parochial school that needed a lot of work, including mold removal. While the administration pronounced the building good to go for the opening of school, some are questioning if the building is making them sick. Jim Hummel goes inside to get some answers.
The two-story brick building looks like a fortress - and it’s built like one.
In fact, the old Bishop McVinney School was designated by the city of Providence as a nuclear fallout shelter in the 1960s . Constructed nearly 75 years ago in the shadows of the Cranston Street Armory the building was home to thousands of parochial school students over the years.
But for much of the past decade it has largely sat vacant and was in rough shape when officials from a Providence charter school - looking for new quarters - toured the building last summer.
Cirillo: ``We looked at the condition and realized that we had some work ahead of us.’’
Dr. Mario Cirillo heads the Academy for Career Exploration, ACE for short - Rhode Island’s first public charter school and a school that’s under the umbrella of the Providence School Department.
For nearly 15 years ACE was housed in the old UCAP building on Broadway, but a year ago its lease was not being renewed and Cirillo had to scramble to find a new location.
And here, he saw a diamond in the rough, settling on the 20,000 square-foot brick school owned by the St. Charles Church next door. ACE moved in over the 4th of July weekend - before signing a lease or having the building tested for mold and other potential toxins. That would come weeks after they moved in, but the school did hire a cleaning crew:
Cirillo: ``Men in suits and equipment brought in, blowers, all types of plastic up - they did it piece by piece, it wasn’t done in one fell swoop. It was done over a period of a few weeks.’’
Two weeks after the move a veteran teacher assigned to one of the basement rooms developed headaches and a sore throat. Within weeks it turned into coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
By October she and another veteran teacher also assigned to the basement said they could no longer work there because of the mold and were ordered by their doctors not to go back. They eventually filed a workers’ compensation lawsuit when the school stopped paying them last fall.
While teachers and students have also reported respiratory problems, Cirillo says the building has been given a clean bill of health - through testing and by city officials - and he stood by his decision to move here last summer in a wide-ranging interview last week with The Hummel Report. He portrayed the two teachers as outliers who do not represent the rest of the faculty, even though one sat on the Board of Directors until she was removed in January.
The rooms looked great when students arrived for classes in late August, but the conditions worsened as summer turned into fall and eventually winter. Pictures we obtained showed problems persisting well into December and January.
Hummel: ``Was there a concern in your mind about mold when you moved in here?’’
Cirillo: ``When we first came over to the building it was obvious that there was a problem in the basement and it was a concern and we knew that going in.’’
The basement houses a classroom, the cafeteria and gym and the only student bathrooms in the building - as well as the teachers’ lunch room and guidance office.
Cirillo told us the school spent $80,000 of its own funds on moving and getting the building ready to open last fall. St. Charles also spent $50,000 to get the building ready for occupancy.
ACE is paying the church $7,000 a month in rent. It was paying more than triple that for the building on Broadway.
The Hummel Report obtained an email from the school’s union representative to Cirillo and other administrators dated October 28th saying three teachers - including the two who eventually filed the workers comp suit - were having respiratory problems and it named nine children she says had asked to go to the nurse over the previous two to three weeks ``with light-headedness and dizziness and many have been experiencing asthma-like symptoms.’’
Eventually the teachers filed a formal grievance with the School Department, along with individual grievances from the two teachers who had been working in the basement classrooms. Those grievances were eventually denied, based in part on more testing done in February that the school said showed acceptable air quality levels.
Cirillo: ``Everyone I talked with from the company, from the diocese, we all felt very confident.’’
Hummel: ``Then why would you get a memo like this?’’
Cirillo: ``Well, there still was a level of concern. But Miss Perry is still here, she’s still teaching here…’
Hummel: ``Hasn’t had any problems?’’
Hummel: ``Have you personally experienced any problems in this building?’’
Cirillo: ``No. No.’’