Lead paint threatens on-time school start in Winchester

Rory Schuler

Paint has been peeling and chipping from the walls of Muraco Elementary School for years.

But this week, laboratory tests conducted on the fallen debris have stirred a frantic effort to secure available workmen to remove the paint and apply a fresh coat before the start of school on Wednesday, Sept. 3.

“The loose, leaded paint on the exterior, as well as the interior, if there is any, is a hazard and needs to be mitigated,” said Jennifer Murphy, Health Director for the Winchester Health Department.

Nearly 50 parents of Muraco pupils attended Monday night’s Board of Selectmen meeting in an effort to draw attention to the recent discovery that the chipped paint carpeting the ground outside the school does, in fact, contain lead.

Murphy said she was informed of the situation by a concerned parent.

“We are pleased that the town officials now share our concern,” said Patty Clewley, a Finance Committee member and parent of two current (and one former) Muraco students. “And we hope that they can act in time to clean up the lead prior to the start of the school year.”

Selectman Brian O’Connor accepted the blame and asked that it be shared equally with his fellow town officials.

“Myself, and the town, and every other official has caused this situation to occur because of lack of attention,” he said Tuesday morning. “No repairs were done, because that decision wasn’t made. I wouldn’t let my kids in that school, and I don’t think anyone else should, either. We caused the problem — ‘we’ plural. We have ignored it, and now ‘we’ have a problem.”

The large group of concerned parents also revealed that window caulking at the school contains asbestos.

The consensus seems to be that the asbestos issue, however, is not as much of a concern as the chipping paint. The asbestos will only become dangerous once work has begun; so window replacement will wait until next year, according to Murphy.

Funds for re-painting the school and the previously scheduled window replacement had already been set aside in past years’ budgets. Work was scheduled for this summer. Recently, though, the work was canceled.

“The project in question involves exterior repairs to the Muraco School,” Town Manager Mel Kleckner wrote in a memo to the Board of Selectmen (copies of which were sent to Clewley, Superintendent William H. McAlduff Jr., DPW Director Ed Grant, DPW Facilities Manager Peter Lawson, and Murphy). “In [fiscal year] 2006, capital repair funds were appropriated for the repair/replacement of windows.”

The project was “deferred” due to uncertainty concerning whether the Muraco School would be slated for replacement or major renovation, Kleckner continued.

“As you know, the School Committee determined that the Vinson-Owens School, not Muraco, would be the first school in the queue,” he wrote. “This past spring, funds were appropriated for re-painting the exterior wood surfaces at Muraco.”

At some point, school and town officials decided to combine the two projects into one to save costs.

“In June, an architect was retained to prepare the project specifications and to bid the work,” Kleckner wrote. “It became apparent that the work could not be completed during the school vacation period and the School Department was consulted.”

Kleckner told the selectmen that McAlduff had decided the work would have a negative impact “on school operations and for the health and safety of the school students and staff,” so he decided to “defer the project until the following summer.”

Kleckner said he supported the decision.

“Ms. Clewley is understandably upset over this delay and is concerned about the health and safety of students from the existing conditions,” Kleckner wrote. “In particular, she is concerned about the impacts of peeling and flaking paint that contains lead. The exterior paint does contain lead, as do most buildings of this vintage.”

Murphy said, “one could make an assumption on older buildings that there is leaded paint,” and that the town was not necessarily under any obligation to test the paint for lead, or to inform the Health Department. She said that health officials typically “just assume [the paint is] leaded,” when dealing with buildings as old as the Muraco School.

Murphy explained that lead paint chips pose the “greatest hazard for children under 6.”

“The way children generally become lead poisoned, [is by consuming] paint or dust,” she said, adding that the side effects can range from arrested childhood development, to learning deficiencies and “general harm to the body.”

Clewley said that the paint has gradually mixed with the soil surrounding the school, and at one spot lingers uncomfortably close to a playground used by building’s youngest pupils.

“Ms. Clewley believes that DPW personnel stated that this paint did not contain lead, but nobody recalls making this statement,” Kleckner wrote. “The caulking around some windows contains asbestos that also must be dealt with. The Health Director has been advised of these conditions (see laboratory results attached) and will monitor the work when it is done.”

The laboratory results, from Envirotest Laboratory, Inc. of Westwood, show lead levels far higher than those considered “safe.”

Meanwhile, McAlduff has been consulting with Murphy and other town officials. All those involved with the attempt to fix this situation plan to meet during the next Winchester School Committee meeting on Thursday night.

McAlduff said he hopes to announce a plan of action soon after that meeting. He said he is optimistic the work can be completed before the first day of school.

“The Superintendent and I agree that an interim project should be implemented that would scrape and treat all wood surfaces under each entrance or walkway before school opens this September,” Kleckner concluded. “This work would be carried out according to guidelines acceptable to the Health Director. This would not eliminate the need to do this work more completely next summer (in connection to the window project), but we feel it is essential to create a safer and more aesthetically pleasing environment at this time.”

McAlduff and O’Connor both admit that it may be difficult to find workmen available to work on the lead abatement over the next three weeks. So far, it’s unclear whether the rushed timetable will cost more than the original plans.

“If the roof fell in, would it be an emergency?” O’Connor asked. “We need some emergency money, in my view. If you delay the school opening, then you do. [If the costs increase] exponentially or not, it needs to be done.”