Mold plagues Stamford’s schools. How would mayoral hopefuls Simmons and Valentine tackle it?

Photo of Brianna Gurciullo

STAMFORD — Among the issues Stamford’s next mayor will inherit come December is the ongoing mold crisis in the city’s schools.

Mayor David Martin has defended his response to the mold crisis, saying he acted quickly to establish a task force dedicated to the issue and that tens of millions of dollars have been spent on renovation and mitigation projects since mold was found.

But in separate interviews with Hearst Connecticut Media, unaffiliated mayoral candidate Bobby Valentine and state Rep. Caroline Simmons, the Democratic candidate, said more needs to be done.

Valentine said a fresh approach to school infrastructure is needed.

“Our schools have been deteriorating for a century, our mold has been accumulating for over a decade,” he said. “And the people, both those who have the connections with Hartford and those who have been in charge of our city, have not corrected the problem. So, obviously, doing the same thing with the same people cannot be the answer.”

In terms of mold, Valentine said he would put together a “SWAT team” of engineers during his first week in office to inspect the schools and determine what needs to be changed in order to prevent mold from growing again.

But Valentine also made clear that he isn’t promising to “automatically fix the schools.”

“I cannot do that, nor can anyone else,” he said.

Simmons said she thinks the first step should be “just acknowledging that this is unacceptable and that our teachers and students deserve quality facilities where they can focus on learning and not be worried about public health.”

Beyond that, she said the mayor has to “bring accountability to this issue.”

“I think we need to stop continuously flushing money down the toilet and paying the same contractors who are not performing or not fixing the problem,” Simmons said.

She said she also believes a “sense of urgency” has been missing when it comes to seeking state funding for school infrastructure.

“There was hazardous mold found in a dozen of our schools, which we knew about as early as 2009, and just now, in 2021, the city has applied for funding from the state to fix Westhill High School,” Simmons said.

Mold was found in 11 school buildings in 2018. During a study of school facilities in 2009, consultants had recommended that mold assessments be performed in at least seven buildings.

Stamford is seeking reimbursement for a near-complete reconstruction of Westhill, the district’s biggest school, and a new building at 83 Lockwood Ave. to house a preschool program. Each project has been submitted to the state’s Department of Administrative Services, which determines reimbursement based on a formula. Martin has been critical of that formula, saying it puts Stamford at a disadvantage.

The city’s Long-Term Facilities Committee — which consists of members of the Board of Education, teachers, staff and state legislators, including Simmons — has been working on a broad plan for dealing with Stamford’s aging school buildings and getting funding for them.

“Some may need to be rebuilt entirely. Some may just need upgrades,” Simmons said. “But we need to ensure that the air quality is safe, that we’re doing everything we can to make our buildings accessible … (and we’re) thinking about ways we can make our buildings more sustainable.”

For example, she said, the city could consider installing solar panels on the roofs of schools.

SLAM, an architecture firm, is currently developing a master plan that will include an assessment of each of Stamford’s school buildings, an analysis of demographics and enrollment projections, and a long-term capital management plan that incorporates considerations such as the effects of climate change on buildings.

With that plan, which officials hope will be completed and approved by April 2022, the district will decide which schools need to be renovated and which need to be completely replaced.

Valentine indicated that he would be interested in reviving a conversation about adding a school in the South End, a neighborhood whose population has been on the rise.

“I think you need to put schools closer to where (students) live,” Valentine said.

The Stamford mayoral election is Nov. 2.

This story is part of a series delving into the biggest issues in Stamford with the two mayoral candidates: Caroline Simmons, a Democrat, and Bobby Valentine, who is running unaffiliated.

Includes prior reporting by staff writer Ignacio Laguarda.

brianna.gurciullo@hearstmediact.com