Doors to C.R. Anderson Middle School were shut abruptly Tuesday after lead dust sampling found levels above federal standards, and the school likely will remain closed for the next week or longer.
Helena school district officials decided late Monday evening to close the middle school, the state’s largest, as a precaution while further testing can be conducted and contaminated areas cleaned.
Principal Bruce Campbell announced the closure to parents of the more than 1,000 C.R.A. students in an email sent around 10 p.m. Monday.
“Limited lead tests were conducted at C.R. Anderson and the results have revealed elevated levels of lead in isolated areas of C.R.A. Thus out of caution, we have decided to close C.R. Anderson temporarily to conduct more intensive tests," the email reads.
The district also made around 3,000 phone calls Monday night using a new notification system, Superintendent Kent Kultgen said.
“We did understand we’re sending this out at 10 at night,” Kultgen told a group of parents Tuesday afternoon, during a regularly scheduled meeting. “I balked at this, because I kind of learned my lesson last year,” he said, referring to the sudden closure of Central School 10 months ago.
However, Kultgen said he wasn’t willing to allow students into the school knowing it may be contaminated.
“I know that parents depend on the school,” he said. “All of a sudden we pull that out from under them at 10 p.m., but we were concerned about safety in that building.”
Custodians were dismissed around 10 p.m. Monday, Kultgen said, while front office employees worked and staff retrieved personal belongings until the building closed around noon Tuesday for additional testing.
Eight students arrived at the school Tuesday expecting to go to class, according to officials.
“Today has been a rather tumultuous day for everyone,” school Board of Trustees Chair Libby Goldes said at the start of Tuesday evening’s board meeting.
The limited testing for lead was commissioned after Goldes inquired during a November meeting about a shooting range that previously operated in the school’s basement, officials said. An indoor shooting range was the suspected source of lead contamination that forced the sudden and ongoing closure of the state-owned Armory building in October.
Goldes said she didn’t realize at the time that her question might lead to the closure of the building.
“I had no idea about what repercussions that would have,” she said.
Director of Support Services John Carter said he has been unable to find records regarding the history of the shooting range inside C.R. Anderson, but said information gathered from staff and community members suggest that the range was removed prior to 1993.
The basement, part of an addition to the school constructed in 1965, was unfinished and had dirt floors before being converted to classroom space.
“Finding no documentation that lead testing and/or abatement were performed, the district authorized A.L.M. Consulting to conduct a preliminary investigation for potential lead contamination,” Kultgen wrote in a press release issued Tuesday afternoon.
Wipe tests conducted in the exposed ductwork in rooms near the former shooting range yielded lead dust concentrations many times greater than the federal HUD clearance level of 40 micrograms per square foot.
“We had rates over 1,000,” Kultgen told members of the district’s Parent Advisory Council Tuesday.
Ryan McGee, of A.L.M. Consulting, was reluctant to cite specific lead concentration levels Tuesday, saying lab analysis of the lead samples was still being validated. He emphasized that the high concentrations were found in isolated areas and that additional testing will determine whether any lead is in direct contact with students and staff.
Lead dust concentrations above 800 micrograms per square foot were found on the exposed ductwork in classroom B-1, on the site of the former range, and around the basement elevator, McGee said.
The situation warranted the building’s closure, he said, in part because the elevated samples were found on the surface of exposed ductwork inside the classroom.
“There was no proof that it wasn’t on surfaces,” McGee said.
McGee and a subcontractor conducted tests Tuesday on touchable surfaces such as tables and desks and collected air samples throughout the building. Analysis of those samples will provide a clearer picture of the potential contamination, McGee said.
“By having results (Wednesday), we’re hoping to be able to have a much better scope of where the cleanup is going to go,” he said.
Officials with the Lewis and Clark City-County Health Department met with Kultgen Tuesday morning to offer their services and develop a procedure for those who may be have been exposed to lead at C.R. Anderson. Children, whose brains are still developing, are much more susceptible to the affects of lead than adults.
Those health guidelines will be issued Wednesday, the department said in a news release.
“We know that parents are worried,” county Health Officer Melanie Reynolds said at the school board meeting Tuesday evening.
“Until we have more information, we’re not making any recommendations about who needs to be (blood) tested,” she said.
Kultgen said the district has not received any health-related complaints tied to contamination at C.R. Anderson.
However, he told parents and school board trustees Tuesday that the district plans to offer free blood tests in accordance with the county health department’s recommendation. The cost to the district is roughly $70 per test, he said.
School officials said they received the results of the initial lead dust sampling Monday afternoon. Kultgen said he was informed of the data around 8 p.m., after a school bond committee meeting ended.
The decision to close the school was made about an hour later, he said.
“The first thing that went through my mind was that we can’t close a school,” Kultgen said. “The consulting firm came right out and said, ‘You need to remove all staff and students from the building.’”
He further said that the firm’s recommendation was to close the school immediately, rather than wait a day or two.
A.L.M. Consulting also conducted the lead tests that prompted the recent closing of the Armory building in Helena. Similar lead dust samples taken in plenum areas above ceiling tiles at the Armory yielded concentrations that ranged from undetectable to 1,600 micrograms per square foot.
“You can’t treat this differently than the armory,” McGee said.
Kultgen told parents to expect the school to be closed through Jan. 21, though he said the closure could be longer. Kultgen also said a portion of the building could reopen if testing shows the contamination is confined to the west wing.
A meeting with parents and community members is scheduled for 7 p.m Wednesday in the Capital High School auditorium. Officials said they hope to have data from Tuesday’s additional testing in-hand before that meeting.
Campbell, C.R. Anderson principal, directed an inquiry about the closure Tuesday morning to Kultgen, but is working to determine how the school will make up the missed instructional time, according to the district news release.
Schedule adjustments may include changes to the length of recess and passing periods as well as the school day itself, Kultgen said. He added that the district isn’t looking to shorten spring break or lengthen the academic year, but may increase the school day by 10 minutes or more for the rest of the year.
All contaminated areas of the building will be abated, or cleaned, to levels within federal standards before students and staff return. McGee and Kultgen said they intend to use a more stringent level of 25 micrograms per square foot when clearing the building.
McGee said clean-up crews may be able to abate contaminated areas by Jan. 21, the current target date to reopen some or all of the school.
“(C.R. Anderson) is kind of a different animal than the Armory, in that we can’t keep this closed for a year,” he said.
The method and timing of the closure, as well as not telling parents about the potential lead contamination, irritated Shawn Whyte, the mother of an 11-year-old C.R. Anderson student. She wanted to know how long the school district had known about the potential contamination, why they waited until the last minute to tell the parents about the closure, and what potential health risks it had for students.
“It seems like they don’t trust the parents and aren’t working with us as partners,” Whyte said. “The fact that this is the third major event that they’ve had and they still don’t know how to talk to parents is irritating.”
Last March, parents were notified when they picked up their students after school that Central Elementary school would be closed abruptly for the rest of the year due to structural concerns if an earthquake were to occur. In 2006, parents of students at Hawthorne Elementary were told on a Friday that the school wouldn’t be open on the following Monday due to concerns it wouldn’t withstand a “significant seismic event.”
“Dropping the bomb on everybody after 10 o’clock at night is poor planning, poor communication and poor protocol,” Whyte said. “We have an amazing public school system, but they need to address this. They’re not helping us plan for 1,200 kids, and that’s a lot of families that are affected.”
C.R. Anderson parent Cynthia Brooks was briefed about the closure by Kultgen during Tuesday’s meeting of the Parent Advisory Council, at which Brooks represents the school.
“At this point, based on what you (Kultgen) have told me, I’m not that concerned,” she said during the meeting.
Brooks works for the Department of Environmental Quality and was herself displaced by the Armory closure. When her husband informed her of the C.R. Anderson closure late Monday, Brooks said it felt like déjà vu.
“I was satisfied with the explanation (Kultgen) gave,” she said after the meeting.
Brooks has fielded calls from other parents with questions about student safety, reasons for the closure and the district’s plan to make up lost instruction time.
She said her family received an automated call from the district at 10:15 p.m. Monday.
“That’s pretty efficient,” she said, adding that closing the school “is a tough call for them to make.”
“I feel satisfied that the school is proceeding appropriately,” she said.
Trustees, who were not involved in the decision to close the building, discussed the closure during a regular executive committee meeting Tuesday and placed it on the agenda for the evening’s school board meeting.
Goldes said superintendent Kultgen was right to heed the advice of the contamination experts.
“We want to not have those students in the building until we make it safe,” she said.
Reporter Derek Brouwer: 447-4081 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Derek on Twitter @IR_DerekBrouwer.