It’s been five years since the mold outbreak. What’s been done?

By: Eugene Caibal

The cleanliness of Westhill High School has been a contentious topic for many students, families, and community members in the past few years. As recently as 2018, returning students for the 2018-2019 school year were welcomed with signs of mold, leakage, and severe neglect all around the nearly 50-year-old campus, partially due to major rainfall in the weeks before. 

This was not an isolated incident: according to the Stamford Advocate in 2018, 11 schools across the district were struck with severe spikes in mold growth.

Students walked out in protest, parents pulled their children from school, and eventually, Stamford Public Schools formed the Mold Task Force in October 2018 to address their concerns. Many feared the long-term effects of mold exposure, with many faculty becoming sick due to long-term mold exposure. 

Though many were affected by the mold—both students and faculty alike, Westhill’s administration received only a $350 fine in 2019 filed by Connecticut OSHA for failure to provide a proper hazard communication program to employees that complied with OSHA’s standards. 

Many believed this to be only a slap on the wrist compared to the severity of the neglect the campus suffered, not to mention the potential long-term health effects that still linger with many to this day, many community members unsatisfied. 

Daily Tasks

The previously mentioned Mold Task Force comprised five Stamford Board of Education members, including current District Superintendent Dr. Tamu Lucero. The Mold Task Force was dissolved into the Stamford Asset Management Group (SAMG) in mid-2019 right before Kevin McCarthy, the current Operating Director of Facilities and head of SAMG, was hired by the district. 

According to a January interview conducted by The Westword with McCarthy and Cindy Grafstein, Special Assistant to Mayor Caroline Simmons for SAMG, all 23 schools within the district including Westhill are now under the purview of the group. However, SAMG itself is not its acting group as the name implies, but rather a department just like any other within the city government. 

SAMG’s job is not just mold clean-up and remediation: it primarily deals with the logistics of the school and supplies the needs of the on-site custodial staff within the building. They keep stock of essential supplies such as paper towels and cleaning supplies. “It’s a daily task,” said McCarthy, who has been in charge of the department for nearly 4 years. SAMG is also not just in charge of all 23 schools within the district, but also the Government Center, and all other city government facilities.

Their responsibilities are vast, and because of this, SAMG is not hands-on in terms of mold clean-up efforts within individual schools. According to McCarthy, all work done for ongoing maintenance and cleaning duties is the responsibility of the head custodians of every school who are supervised by SAMG’s custodial manager, Thomas McIntosh.

Lightyears Ahead

“Compared to other high schools, I think we’re comparatively well, comparatively clean. There is always improvement that anybody can do, but overall, I think we’re pretty clean,” Head Custodian Tim Smith told The Westword. Along with Dominick Plateroti, they are the current head custodians of Westhill High School, with Smith being hired in July 2022. 

Students may also criticize the building’s cleanliness and lack of proper care, but Tim Smith argues that the students themselves make the campus dirty in the first place. 

“All you have to do is walk in the cafeteria, walk down some of the stairwells. There are juice boxes all over the place, Mcdonald’s papers, half a cheeseburger. Just walk the halls and you can see.”

He continued: “You can go in the cafeteria just after breakfast and you can see what the kids leave. A lot of the cleanliness of the school is [reliant on] the kids.”

Westhill is and has been combatting trash since the start of school. According to the Westhill Staff Directory, there are eleven members of the custodial staff apart including Smith and Plateroti, but the school also contracts outside cleaners during the night shift after students leave. Their duties can range from cleaning garbage bins, and mopping floors, to cleaning classrooms. 

But many school community members claim the issue is bigger than just the trash and grime. Many parts of Westhill are still in poor condition. It is not hard to find these areas of concern: wet spots dot the ceiling hallways and stairwells across the campus, and open ceiling tiles cloud the ground floor. 

Tim Smith told The Westword that the open ceiling tiles are areas that are in the process of preventive maintenance for leakage, and Grafstein reassures that the district is constantly working on maintaining Westhill and all schools across the city of Stamford. 

“Across the district, I would say, clearly we have old buildings, they’re still going to leak,” Cindy Grafstein told The Westword. “What has happened dramatically and what Kevin [McCarthy] has been responsible for is that as soon as we have an issue, we address it. We deal with the leak, whether it’s a roof leak, and then we take out the impacted material so that mold won’t grow.”

“We are lightyears ahead of where we were in 2018,” Cindy Grafstein said. “I think we can safely say that right now, we are confident that there are no significant areas that have mold growth. We’ll always have water intrusions ’cause they’re old buildings and we chase them as they occur.” 

“Today, compared to where we were before, it’s night and day.”

Smith also reassures that the sites are harmless, but this does little to ease the minds of students and faculty who roam the floors daily, as well as those that eat and work around these areas for more than 7 hours a day.

Work Orders and Wet Tiles

Issues such as ceiling tile leakage have been prevalent even before the formation of the Mold Task Force, but according to Tim Smith, those cases are out of his hands. “When a teacher, or an administrator, or even one of my own guys notices [a] tile, I put it in through the system—what we call the work order system, and it goes into whatever shop it needs to. Unfortunately, it’s out of my hands there.” 

The work order system, according to McCarthy, is a website that can be accessed by the custodians of the school. Everything from roof leaks to broken locks files within the system, and the issue routes to the respective carpenter, locksmith, or plumber downtown. Preventive maintenance, such as mold remediation, is also logged within the system, but inspection schedules are not handled by SAMG but rather by the custodial staff of the respective school.

In 2009, Stamford Public Schools contracted the building consultant group EMG, now Bureau Veritas, to survey the conditions of the building and recommend maintenance. In the assessment’s conclusion, EMG recommended Westhill undergo a mold review where they would survey the site for any potential leakage or moisture build-up on campus.

However, according to Smith, some of the work recommended never was completed. “From what [EMG] recommended and what was spent at the time, I know that the Board of Finance [and] the Board of [Education], didn’t keep up with [the maintenance] because it was too expensive,” Tim Smith said.

He continued: “I think the recommendation way back when [EMG] did that study was at least $2 million a year, and I know we didn’t do that.” Smith also claims that the reason for this was because of administrative neglect and decades of underspending on education. 

“For what EMG recommended [in terms of] spending, [it] definitely wasn’t in the city’s budget. It was way over what they could spend. And I believe it was just years of not spending enough on the schools.” 

This lack of spending may have, in part, contributed to the eventual mold situation of late 2018. McCarthy told The Westword: “Historically, in 2018, I just think that nobody truly understood the magnitude of what needed to be done to keep buildings dry and mold-free. And why that is, I’m not too sure. [Either] lack of experience, training, knowledge, or funding.”

Capital Dollars

However, this cycle of neglect may come to a head in the coming years. According to the Stamford Advocate, both the state and city government have agreed to put down $301 million toward the building of a new Westhill adjacent to the current site. The construction has not yet commenced but has been rumored to be completed sometime within the decade, presumably in 2027. 

This new site may be the only solution to the school’s long history of disrepair and poor maintenance: most of the HVAC systems are hidden within the walls and cannot be adequately maintained without tearing significant portions of the walls down, a costly and otherwise risky maneuver.

SAMG is hesitant about investing more work into the building. They already supply most of the funding through bonds with notes of around 20 to 30 years, according to McCarthy.  “As far as investing capital into the building to make it better, that’s not done, really, though not the best way to put it,” McCarthy said. “We do understand in five years there’s going to be a new building, so we’re not going to invest unneeded, unnecessary capital dollars.”

He continued “We’re not going to invest that type of money into Westhill currently unless it’s totally needed. If a boiler breaks tomorrow, we’re obviously going to reinvest in a new boiler because we need to operate and maintain the building for the next 6 to 7 years.”

“[But] to replace the flooring because the flooring looks old? That’s probably not going to happen unless the flooring is damaged and needs to take care of so that it doesn’t create a [trip] hazard.”

However, students and faculty believe that change needs to happen now: the campus is still feeling the consequences of systemic neglect to this day. At the start of the 22-23 school year, a pipe burst caused classes to close at Stamford’s largest high school for the day. The break resulted in much of the 300s and the basement level experiencing flooding, with water seen flooding out of the southern entrance doors and pooling into the parking lot.

For the Future

For concerned members of the Westhill, it is not just the trash, the mold, or the leaks that are the concern: it’s everything. The school is old, it will continue to age as time goes on, and even as downtown continues its efforts to hold out and buy time until the new school, for some, this will still not be enough.

An entire class can go from freshman year to graduation by the time the new Westhill is speculated to be completed, leaving many incoming Vikings afraid for their future. And with the current state of the now 53-year-old building, it is not a question of if a new facility incident is likely to occur, but when. 

Eugene Caibal (‘25) and Malcolm Fenster (‘23) contributed to this report