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Citing health concerns, teachers union asks city to delay JP school opening

Posted by Roy Greene  September 9, 2011 07:01 PM

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The Boston Teachers Union called on the city today to delay opening a Jamaica Plain elementary school after union officers complained of headaches and dizziness during a visit to the building, where trace amounts of a toxin in old, flaking paint were recently removed.

Union officials also said teachers and staff working to prepare the James W. Hennigan school for classes to start Monday h thatad expressed concern about whether the facility is safe and that some reported suffering from symptoms that included upper respiratory irritation.

“We have serious concerns as to whether the building will be appropriately ready [by Monday],’’ said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union.

Last week, the School Department announced it was delaying the school opening by two days to complete the paint removal.

In a statement today, the union asked school officials to vacate the facility and further delay the opening “until independent tests are taken to verify that the building is safe for occupancy.”

School district spokesman Matt Wilder said that the city conducted tests of the building today that revealed no problems. The department will continue monitoring and ventilating it over the weekend to ensure that the school is safe for students and staff, he said.

Wilder said school officials had not received any complaints from Hennigan staff and fully expects the building to be ready by Monday.

“Teachers have been in the school all day [setting up their classrooms] and no one has reported headaches or other complaints to the principal,” said Wilder, who called the visiting union officials’ reports of adverse symptoms “quite surprising.”

“There could be a smell of paint,” he said, referring to a final round of repainting that was finished yesterday.

The K-5 school building on Heath Street houses the Hennigan Elementary School and the West Zone Early Learning Center, which combined enroll roughly 700 students.

The Boston Public Health Commission has been working with the School Department throughout the initial testing and repainting. City health officials said they were retesting the building as a precaution.

“If there’s a cause for concern we’ll certainly act on it,” said Ann Scales, spokeswoman for the health commission. “We’re not going to let anybody go back in that building if there are any problems from a health standpoint.”

The School Department announced the unforeseen removal and repainting project in a letter to families three weeks ago. School officials said in the letter that the amount of PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyl, found in the building’s paint was “nominal and is not even significant enough to meet federal reporting thresholds.”

“Our environmental assessment and remediation plan goes above and beyond what other cities and school districts around the nation are doing, and far beyond what federal regulations require,” Superintendent Carol R. Johnson wrote.

Wilder said today that the building no longer bore any trace of PCB.

Earlier, Johnson’s office had considered temporarily moving classes from the Hennigan to the recently closed Louis Agassiz Elementary School on Child Street.

E-mail Matt Rocheleau at mjrochele@gmail.com

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