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Peabody superintendent to make Burke School decision today

Posted by Justin Rice  January 5, 2012 09:01 AM

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Interim Superintendent Dr. Herbert Levine will make his final determination today on whether or not to move students out of the Burke Elementary School due to elevated levels of PCB, or polychlorinated biphenyl, detected on the school’s second floor.

During a community meeting at the school last night, Levine said that decision will come later this morning or early this afternoon. But he also said he is leaning toward not moving second and fourth graders whose classrooms are on the second floor to the West Elementary for the remainder of the year.

Last month students in upstairs classrooms were moved downstairs, the day before Levine went public with the news at a school committee meeting. Those rooms remain closed.

“I am likely not to move the second and fourth grade,” Levine said last night, noting that parents would still be able to pull their children out of the rooms. “We will work with every individual family over the next few days to make sure your option of choice is taken care of to the best of our ability. We will make that happen.

“I will have final decision by [this] afternoon. Anyone who wants to call me, email me or just drop in over the next 12 to 24 hours I will be around. You all have my cell phone.”

Levine learned yesterday that the state’s Department of Public Health determined there is no health risk in the school. Sharon Cameron, the city's director of health, and Kim Tisa, the PCB coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency Region 1, also reached the same conclusion.

“Based on what I know about PCBs, I don’t see any reason not to,” Tisa said when asked by a parent at last night’s meeting if she would send her own children to the school.

After the airborne toxin was detected in two classrooms in October as the district prepared to replace windows in the school, a follow up test showed that the levels had decreased by half.

The district then spent about $25,000 to test the entire Burke School. Late last week officials received the results from those tests, which showed some levels were still elevated.  

According to the EPA’s website, the PCB levels for 6 to 12-year-old students should be below .30, but experts note that factors such as length of time the PCB is in the air also have to be accounted for. Two second floor classrooms at the Burke tested at .78 and .62 in October and .32 and .37 in November.  

The latest results had one second-floor classroom at .31 and one at .32.  Levine has noted throughout the ordeal that testing above .30 just means that the EPA requires the district to monitor the air quality and not condemn the school immediately.

Levine also said the latest PCB results indicate that the entire first floor falls below the .30 standard for grades one to five. Two classrooms fell below the .10 standard for 3 to 5-year-olds, with two other classrooms barely exceeding that standard at .11, he said.

At last night’s meeting Tisa said the EPA’s PCB levels are conservative numbers, noting that schools in Lexington and New York have turned up much higher levels than what was detected in the Burke.

“I do appreciate Lexington’s numbers and New York because you have put all these things together but our concern is this building right here,” George Gardikas, a parent of three children in the school, said during the meeting.

After the meeting Gardikas, who had one child on the second floor, said he doesn’t want his kids disrupted again.

“I want all three of my kids downstairs,” he said on his way out of the meeting. “It’s enough disruption for these kids. It’s enough hassle for them to learn.”

But another parent, Theresa Vlismas, was comforted by what she heard last night.

"Thank you for coming,” she told the panel during the meeting. “You shed light on everything and really eased my mind."

If Levine does decide not to move the students he will still allow any parent who wants to move their child out of the building for the remainder of the year to do so. And they will be allowed to return to the Burke in the fall after the district replaces all of the building’s windows this summer.

Several parents were also upset about the lack of communication from the district during the ordeal. They complained that their children learned information before they did.  Levine pledged to do better and newly inaugurated mayor, Edward “Ted” Bettencourt, Jr., also said the district would be more transparent under his watch.

“Going forward that will be the way the city operates,” said Bettencourt, whose own children attend the Burke. “I want to rebuild the trust you have in city government and me.”

Even though he said he was leaning toward keeping children in the school, Levine also laid out a contingency plan to move children. Beyond moving the second and fourth graders to the West School, Levine also said the plan would involve moving classroom 102 to 105 on the first floor and allow parents of children in 103 to have their children moved if they wish.

“The West School’s windows were replaced so the windows’ caulk is relatively new and it is within a mile and a half from here,” Levine said. “The rest of the school would remain here on the first floor and Kindergarteners would remain here.”

He said it would cost $40,000 to $60,000 to move children out of the building, with most of the funds going to transportation costs. But Levine also said he has even had movers come out to assess what it would take to move the classrooms.

Levine met with teachers at 8:30 a.m. this morning, who had their own plan to move the children in the second-floor classrooms without making them leave the building.

“There is a possibility we will do nothing,” Levine said last night. “There is an increasing possibility the second and fourth grades will not move. I’m not saying this right now because I really have to chew on this.”

Regardless of what he decides today, Levine said he will create a committee to communicate the results of PCB tests that will be done through the end of the school year as well as any other updates on the issue. The district will conduct several other air quality tests at the school as well.

“We want to know if our air is clean,” he said. “Not just for PCB but for other things.”

Justin A. Rice can be reached at jrice.globe@gmail.com.

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