Cracks split the siding outside of Soldotna High School on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. The siding is one of several projects in a bond package Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Cracks split the siding outside of Soldotna High School on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. The siding is one of several projects in a bond package Kenai Peninsula voters will consider during the Oct. 4 municipal election next month. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Suit alleges fungal growth at 4 KPBSD schools caused health problems

The district has both acknowledged and responded to the complaint, KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland said

A former special education teacher at Mountain View Elementary School is suing the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the Kenai Peninsula Borough with and on behalf of her four children, who she says have suffered from medical issues after being exposed to mold and other materials while attending district schools.

Jennifer Harvey-Kindred and two of her adult children, Madeline Kindred and Jillian Kindred, are plaintiffs in the suit, as are two of Harvey-Kindred’s minor children. Between 2004 and 2018, the four children attended at various intervals Aurora Borealis Charter School in Kenai, Soldotna Middle School, Soldotna High School and Kenai Central High School.

School district records published for the KPBSD school board’s Oct. 2, 2023, meeting show that Harvey-Kindred worked as a special education pre-kindergarten teacher at Mountain View Elementary School in Kenai until her resignation effective Oct. 17, 2023.

The suit says the schools have “a history of water intrusion, water damage, organic and microbial growth and mold” and that the school district and borough “have a history of underfunding building maintenance for K-12 schools.” In an answer to the civil complaint, the borough and school district denied those allegations.

The suit further says that the school district and borough have failed to keep up on annual maintenance requirements and have deferred maintenance on school roofs, ceilings and siding, “allowing water to leak in and allow organic and microbial growth to occur in the buildings for years.” The borough and school district deny those allegations as well in their answer to the complaint.

At each school, the suit says, Harvey-Kindred’s four children were exposed to “dangerous mold and organic growth.”

Because of that exposure, the suit alleges, each of the four former students have suffered one or more of: nose bleeds, allergies, periodontal disease, neurological issues, emotional distress, chronic sinusitis, fungal prediabetes, fatigue, anemia, chronic joint pain, pre-thyroid issues, back inflammation, herniated disc, hormonal issues affecting reproductive organs, gut issues, diabetes and difficulty concentrating.

Through the suit, the plaintiffs are seeking financial compensation for damages, which they estimate to be in excess of $100,000, and for attorney fees. The plaintiffs also demand a jury trial.

KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland told the Clarion in early December that the district has both acknowledged and responded to the complaint.

“The claims will continue to be thoroughly investigated, and the District will vigorously defend against the claims,” Holland said. “The health, safety, and welfare of all students, staff and visitors to all school facilities has always been and will continue to be a top priority for the District.”

Documents obtained by the Peninsula Clarion show that, across Aurora Borealis Charter School, Soldotna Middle School, Kenai Central High School and Soldotna High School, a total of three fungal growth studies were conducted between 2005 and 2021 — the years during which the plaintiffs attended those schools.

The first, conducted in 2007 at Soldotna Prep School — previously called Soldotna Middle School — detected “unusual” mold conditions. The sample was taken from the school principal’s office and detected two types of spores. The first type, the report says, is commonly found on dead plants, while the second is commonly found in soil, food, paint and compost piles.

The second study, conducted in 2012, tested carpet in Mountain View Elementary School. That report found that the fungal elements and spores were below the detection limit.

The third study was prepared for Soldotna High School in 2021. The 28-page report found signs of “chronic long-term water intrusion” on the school’s north wall and said that fungal growth was seen on the sheetrock above the window in one of the classrooms, but that the conditions represented a “normal fungal ecology.” The report further concluded that cleaning by school staff is “effective.”

The report recommended that the borough remove the contaminated sheetrock above the window and replace it with a product that would not promote mold growth. Additional monitoring of the windows on that side of the building was also recommended. Remediation efforts, the report said, should focus on removing mold growth and ensuring that any areas where water is getting into the building are addressed.

“Since mold spores are ever-present in the environment, it is virtually impossible to make a building mold-free,” the Soldotna High School summary report says. “Because molds are ubiquitous with the built environment, spores that settle on moist or wet surfaces with the right nutrients have the potential to grow.”

The siding at Soldotna High School described in the report as being the place where water is intruding, is scheduled for replacement as part of a $65.5 million bond package passed by borough voters in October 2022. The bond proposition described $2 million worth of upgrades to the school’s exterior finishes, which are visibly cracked and patched.

Deferred maintenance at KPBSD facilities has long been identified as a concern. In 2021, it was estimated that about $420 million worth of maintenance was needed at school district buildings, roughly $166 million of which was tied to “critical” needs. The district has previously said that the unique needs and challenges of its 42 diverse schools, little opportunities for grants and financial aid from the State of Alaska and historic lack of interest in bond packages have all contributed to those price tags.

There are no federal regulations or standards for airborne mold contaminants, but “most typical indoor air exposures to mold do not present a risk of adverse health effects,” the Soldotna High School report says. Mold is found “in virtually every environment,” both indoors and outdoors.

Mold may cause adverse health effects by producing allergens, which can cause allergic reactions, the report says. People sensitive to mold may experience nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, wheezing or skin irritation. More severe reactions, the report says, may occur among people who are exposed to large amounts of mold in occupational settings.

No court dates have been set yet in Harvey-Kindred, Jennifer et al vs. Kenai Peninsula Borough et al. Court documents show that Clinton Campion, who is representing the borough and school district, is trying to change the venue from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula. In a motion to change venue, he argued that the necessary case witnesses live and work on the Kenai Peninsula.

“Those witnesses should not be required to travel to Anchorage to testify in these proceedings,” the motion says. “The required witnesses in this matter are directly or indirectly involved in supporting the education of students on the Kenai Peninsula. If this matter is tried in Anchorage, (the) parties will be unable to perform their duties.”

Five borough and school district staff submitted affidavits in support of the motion. A judge has not yet ruled on the motion to change venue.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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