Photos by Chris Hendrickson
About 100 SVEC parents gathered to receive a summary of environmental testing that resulted in around 1,000 pages of test results and reports. PBS Environmental studied drinking water, asbestos levels and indoor air quality during its investigation.
Photos by Chris Hendrickson About 100 SVEC parents gathered to receive a summary of environmental testing that resulted in around 1,000 pages of test results and reports. PBS Environmental studied drinking water, asbestos levels and indoor air quality during its investigation.

Sky Valley Education Center (SVEC) parents gathered with Monroe School District officials last week, to learn the results of the indoor air quality testing that has been ongoing since January.

PBS Environmental investigator Gregg Middaugh, Sky Valley Education Center Director Karen Rosencrans, Assistant Superintendent for Operations John Mannix and Monroe Public Schools Board Director Jim Scott facilitated the meeting last Thursday, April 21, in the Frank Wagner Elementary gym.

Superintendent Dr. Fredrika Smith and Director of Facilities Devlin Piplic also were in attendance, along with Washington State Department of Health advisor Nancy Bernard, Snohomish Health District staffers Jeff Ketchel and Amanda Zych and about 100 SVEC parents.

The Sky Valley Education Center is an alternative school that allows parents to be directly involved in the education of their kids. More than 900 students (K-12) are enrolled at Sky Valley, with a wait list to get in. The school is appreciated by parents and students for its unique flexibility and innovative learning environment. 

Last November, kids, parents and teachers at the school began getting sick. The range of symptoms reported by parents is broad, and includes headaches, itchy throat, persistent cough, nosebleeds, stomachaches and thyroid issues. Early puberty was noted as a symptom by several parents, reporting cases in students as young as six and eight years old.

The school district hired PBS Environmental to conduct a comprehensive air quality investigation. Middaugh said they took two to three weeks to walk through the entire facility, including custodial closets, storage areas, classrooms and common spaces. They then developed a sampling strategy before moving forward with specific testing.   

The resulting data includes an 84-page report dedicated to water quality, an 870-page air quality assessment and a 24-page report on asbestos findings.

Numerous HVAC issues were identified. A number of areas lacked ventilation, and in some cases outdoor ventilator intakes were drawing substances that included vehicle exhaust and compost fumes into the buildings. Another issue identified as problematic was housekeeping, which the report states was observed in numerous areas to be poor, including significant dust, debris, clutter and improperly stored items. 

PBS Environmental looked for PCBs, a man-made compound banned in the late 1970s due to environmental concerns, finding residue inside fluorescent light fixtures, prompting a recommendation that the school evaluate all fluorescent light fixtures on campus.

“The great thing about the PCB issue was we didn’t find anything above any regulatory thresholds,” Middaugh said. “There were a few areas that were above recommended thresholds, but nothing above any regulatory threshold.” 

According to the report, peeling and damaged paint, some containing lead and some containing PCBs, was identified in several areas on campus. Calking containing PCBs was also found, but Middaugh determined it held little risk for off-gassing due to its age.

They analyzed surface dust and air particulates and checked for asbestos and mold, Middaugh said.

“We really found no significant fungal particulate in the surface dust, but we did find a number of areas where we observed fungal growth,” Middaugh said.

Mannix theorized that the issues weren’t caused by any one thing. He said he believes the air quality issue is possibly a case of numerous problems occurring simultaneously and rising to a level where people were impacted.

“That is, from everything I’ve seen, all the reports, all the conversations with PBS and their experts, what I believe to have been the case,” the assistant superintendent for operations said.

The school has implemented numerous remedial measures, Mannix said, hiring an additional custodial staff and new custodial supervisor. They’ve tasked an in-house crew with deep cleaning the entire facility, and hired a contracting company to assist. They’ve consulted with McKinstry, the company that installed new air filtration equipment in 2009, to ensure the equipment is in top working order.

The district’s efforts will continue, as they strive to meet the recommendations of PBS, Mannix said.  

The presentation took about 30 minutes. The next 3 1/2 hours were dedicated to parent concerns and questions.

Parent Crystal Clinger was dissatisfied with a concept that suggested that health impacts were caused by a high level of particulates in the air.

“The consensus on many emails and verbal reports states deep cleaning, along with correctly functioning ventilation units, will reduce the high particulate count in the air that is supposedly causing the symptoms in nearly 100 people,” Clinger said, but according to the air-sampling report, dust-mite allergens were well below the acceptable threshold. “If high particulates is the cause, can you explain to me how classrooms with teachers who are very ill, and some are on medical leave, how that explains their chronic symptoms in spite of the fact their rooms have normal counts for air particulates?” Clinger’s own children experienced health-related issues that she associates with the exposure to the building. Her estimation of nearly 100 affected individuals was different than the number of reports received by the school district, which Mannix estimated at roughly 30.

Zych weighed in on the numbers.

“I have heard of 63 people that have some sort of health effect they believe is associated with the building,” the health district staffer said. “We’ve been working with the pediatric and environmental health specialty unit, and they wanted to get out to the community that if you have a child that has endocrine issues, to be seen by Seattle Children’s Endocrinology Department.”

The endocrine system encompasses a collection of glands including the thyroid gland, the pancreas and ovaries.

Zych said she is aware that there are more cases, encouraging parents to reach out to her. 

One of the complexities of the investigation is that symptoms have been widely varied and inconsistent. Additionally, the amount of time teachers, parents and students spend on campus is highly individualized. Parents attending the meeting brought up two SVEC teachers currently out on medical leave who both taught in the same classroom, Michelle Leahy and Daniel Reeves, and asked what is being done to ensure that the classroom is safe.

Rosencrans pointed out that other teachers using the same classroom experienced no ill-effects.  

“We have had two other teachers in that room as well, some over a period of time, who are still there and are fine,” Rosencrans said. “One of the things I want to make sure people have is accurate information. It doesn’t make losing Michelle or Daniel any easier, but it does mean there are some teachers in that room who have been there and are in good health.”

This was a common thread in the meeting: Some kids, parents and teachers have gotten sick, while others have experienced no symptoms at all.

The lack of a “smoking gun” was disappointing to parent Shelby Keyser, who has experienced health issues with four of her five kids, including one with irreversible impacts. She suggested the analysis be fine-tuned to examine the effects of multiple environmental issues co-occurring. She pointed out that combinations of certain medicines can be volatile, using the concept as a parallel. 

“I just want to assert the fact that there might not be the science behind combining slightly elevated PCB levels, slightly elevated asbestos levels, slightly elevated radon levels, but when you combine all of those, we are the smoking gun,” Keyser said. “My kids are the smoking gun.”

She asked how many other parents were like her, whose children were the “smoking gun.” The majority of the parents in the room raised their hands.

Keyser’s children no longer attend SVEC.

“I have spoken to families who have happily taken our spots that we vacated, delighted to be part of our awesome school that we love, and they have not been informed,” Keyser said. “It is unethical to allow people to come into a school where you know people are getting sick, and not tell them that they are running the risks of hurting their children’s health for the rest of their life.”

Parent Rene Tobin credited the school district for its prompt and comprehensive action to try and remedy any existing issues. She commended Rosencrans for her transparency, and complimented the district for its willingness to explore the issue and look for a solution. She said she was disappointed by the reactions by some parents.

“The thing that’s bothering me here is this shouldn’t be an adversarial thing,” Tobin said. “I don’t think anybody’s trying to hide something from us — I don’t think anybody’s trying to shove anything under the carpet.”

Parents questioned why Park Place Middle School was allotted $69 million in the recent bond measure, while SVEC, the second largest school in the district, only received $1 million.

Scott said the district engaged in extensive public process to determine the projects that were included in the 2015 capital facilities bond. It began in 2013, the school board director said, with data collected from district constituents, followed by the formation of a Capital Facilities Steering Committee made up of 20 community members who spent a year touring the schools.

The district collected additional data throughout 2014, settling on a project list that was presented to the board in November. The board agreed, and voted to place the measure on the February 2015 ballot.

The Sky Valley Education Center was allotted $1.01 million, to be used for updated electrical, replacement of selected flooring, ADA access to the band room, enhanced fire safety, upgraded plumbing, increased street parking and heat pump compressor and refrigerant replacement.

One parent asked about the feasibility of redirecting some of the district’s bond funding to help with remedial efforts at SVEC. She said if the community understood that students were becoming ill, they might be willing to temporarily forego an athletic field.

“We are legally bound to follow the mandates of the language of that bond issue,” Mannix said.

The school is planning its air quality improvement efforts. Rosencrans assured parents there are alternatives to explore before pulling kids out of school. Sky Valley was built on a foundation of flexibility and options, she said. Alternatives vary from one hour per week on campus to daily time on campus and everything in between.

The only thing they can’t do, she said, is have students enrolled in site-based classes they aren’t attending.

“No matter what the reason, we are always going to honor parent choice and figure something out and make it work for you, your kids and your family,” Rosencrans said. “Whatever you’re trying to accomplish or whatever you’re looking to do, we will try and make that work for you.”

To review the reports completed by PBS, visit To contact Zych at the health district, email or call 425-339-8774.