Ocean View School District trustees voted to keep two elementary schools closed and shutter a third through the end of this week after asbestos testing showed the potentially hazardous dust to be present in one of the Huntington Beach classrooms.
Less than an hour after first voting unanimously to close 11 schools where construction had taken place during the summer, the board changed its stance, voting 4-1 during a tense, five-hour special meeting Tuesday night to close Oak View, Hope View and Lake View for the rest of the week.
Trustee Gina Clayton-Tarvin dissented, saying she wanted all 11 schools closed.
The district earlier had decided to close Oak View and Hope View elementary schools Monday and Tuesday after parents voiced concerns at a community meeting last week about asbestos directly above the ceiling tiles.
Asbestos is a mineral fiber that until the 1970s was widely used in building products and insulation materials. Asbestos fibers from such materials can be released into the air during demolition work, repairs or remodeling. Though coming into contact with asbestos that hasn't been disturbed isn't harmful, inhaling high levels of the dust can increase the risk of lung disease, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Parents became aware of the issue last month when district Trustee John Briscoe filed a complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health after learning the material was being removed from several district schools during a modernization effort that began in July. The district is investigating whether contractors continued to remove asbestos after the school year began in September, possibly putting students at Hope View, Oak View and Lake View in contact with the dust. Cal/OSHA began its own investigation last week, officials said.
Parents said they were terrified when they learned their children could have been exposed to potentially cancer-causing materials in classrooms without their knowledge.
"I've lost any respect I had for this district, with the exception of a few teachers," said parent Ryan Somerville. "My child's safety is in your hands when he's at school, and you've failed him."
In response to parents' outcry last week, the district hired Sierra Environmental Consulting to test the air and surfaces at Oak View and Hope View for asbestos over the weekend. The district will test for asbestos during the next several weeks at all 11 schools where construction recently took place.
"We have a credibility problem with the parents and families that attend our schools," Briscoe said.
The district has halted all construction and asbestos abatement until next summer and will place signs at the schools where the dust is present, said Supt. Gustavo Balderas.
Cary Ruben, a certified industrial hygienist who took air and surface samples for testing at several schools, said he paid attention to areas where there appeared to be damage to ceiling tiles.
Of the 56 wipe samples that were collected at Hope View, one sample taken in Classroom 6 contained a single asbestos fiber. It was collected under a tile that appeared to have been drilled into with the purpose of running television wires into the classroom, Ruben said.
The board agreed to wet-wipe and thoroughly clean the school's heating, ventilation and cooling systems before allowing students back on campus.
Samples taken from Oak View showed no traces of asbestos.
The district is awaiting results from Lake View, which prompted trustees to close the school until it can be deemed safe.
Asbestos testing at the 11 schools will cost the district about $622,000, officials said.
Several hundred parents and teachers attended the special session Tuesday at Marine View Middle School, which preceded the board's regular meeting.
More than 30 expressed disapproval about what they considered the board's irresponsible handling of the situation.
"This was reckless and negligent," Somerville said.
Most speakers urged the district to close all 11 schools until asbestos has been abated and testing has shown the sites are safe for students and staff.
Before adjourning to a closed session after 10 p.m., the board unanimously approved closing each of the schools until further notice.
However, when trustees returned from their closed meeting, they voted to keep open eight of the schools after the district's legal counsel explained the possible "fiscal ramifications" of closing the majority of its 18 schools.
Many of the people who had attended the special public meeting had already left.
Since the district receives funding from the state based on attendance, the district's finances could be permanently damaged if the board closed 11 schools, said Terry Tao, an attorney representing the district.
"If you did it wrong, you could bankrupt the district," he said.
Parents were outraged at board members for going back on their first decision.
Parent Peter Pedersen stood up during the regular meeting and shouted over trustees as they moved through items on the agenda.
"Is any of this more important than the life of a child?" he said.
The Huntington Beach resident and father of two said he won't allow his daughters to return to Mesa View Middle School and Golden View Elementary until the district can prove that the classrooms have been cleaned and are free of asbestos.