‘They don’t care’ — Rodents, crowding, maintenance problems in a Montgomery County school

South Lake Elementary School, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. (WTOP/Ken Duffy)

One of the elementary schools with one of the highest minority populations in Maryland’s Montgomery County has been plagued with overcrowding, collapsing ceilings, overheating and other problems for years, say parents, activists and educators. One teacher shared video of vermin running around her classroom at night. And scheduled fixes, already years off, have been postponed.

In this story only on WTOP, those problems have some parents claiming race is involved. At the same time, county officials, including a Black council member, deny the charge and say help is on the way, and the president of the PTA recently said, “I don’t believe anything they actually have to say.”

At South Lake Elementary School, on Contour Road in Gaithersburg, the students are more than 90% either Black or Latino. More than 90% have received free meals through the county’s FARMS program.

Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down in-person instruction, almost 900 students walked the halls and occupied classrooms, far above the original building capacity of 694. The school uses about a dozen portable classroom trailers, and four more are on the way.

South Lake teacher Heather LaDuca sent WTOP dozens of videos and photos appearing to show vermin running around her classroom; Montgomery County Public Schools confirmed two of the videos.

Among LaDuca’s photos was one of the school cafeteria; she explained how it gets so overcrowded that lunch periods have to be extended and cover almost three hours.

She also has images of a jammed school parking lot. LaDuca claimed staffers and visitors often have to leave their cars in illegal parking zones.

LaDuca said she snapped a photo of a digital thermometer that showed the classroom temperature exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit while the heat was blasting during a day in the upper 50s in late October.

The air conditioning has failed as well, advocates say. Nicole Bayles, South Lake’s PTA president, recalled to WTOP how she picked up her daughter from summer school at South Lake last year, and found her “kinda lethargic, almost shaking.”

“I said ‘Are you OK?” She was looking at me like I was crazy.”

Bayles said her daughter told her she felt like she was going to throw up.

“I brought her home,” said Bayles. “I put cold towels under her arms, took her temperature and fluids. She had the typical signs of a heat stroke.”

Bayles said she contacted school maintenance, which she claimed at first said it would be “expensive” to fix the air conditioning, but eventually a crew arrived to make repairs.

The Montgomery County Public Schools responded, saying, “We will have to investigate this interaction between the PTA and our maintenance team. We are aware that significant maintenance/replacement occurred during the summer and fall of 2019.”

‘Definitely a concern’

Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut school buildings, LaDuca said, she routinely cleaned rodent feces off her desk when she arrived at work in the morning. She also used a remote self-running camera to capture vermin scurrying around her classroom at night on several occasions last October, November and December.

Another video, recorded in early December 2019, shows a building service worker casually tossing what appears to be some sort of feed for the mice on the floor around a bait station in the classroom and walking away.

LaDuca also described dead mice on the classroom floor, along with rodent droppings in student lunch bins and torn-up shreds of school materials.

Dr. Barton Behravesh, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said a rodent infestation is “definitely a concern for children’s health and something that needs to be addressed.” He added, “Any school that has a rodent problem of any level should take that seriously.”

The CDC says humans can pick up a variety of direct and indirect sicknesses from rodents, including hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, a severe and sometimes fatal respiratory disease.

Tanushree Dutta Isaacman, with the community advocate group Action in Montgomery County, told WTOP there are leaks in the ceiling at the school, that the ceiling of the music room has partially collapsed during classes and multiple classrooms have suffered water damage from water pipe problems.

“If this were a restaurant,” she said, “it would’ve been shut down.”

MCPS tells WTOP they sent a pest management team to the school 23 times since getting reports about the rodents in December 2019, and that “both structural repairs and modifications in process have been implemented since that time.” The school system has not responded to inquiries about the last time the school has been treated for mice.

Another delay

South Lake is one of several schools selected for site improvements and new construction in Montgomery County, and parents and advocacy groups have lobbied County Council members, the schools superintendent and the county’s Board of Education to prioritize the school.

It looked like it was going to pay off. The county’s Capital Improvements Program proposal for fiscal years 2021-2026 included recommendations that South Lake should be included in the list of major capital projects with a scheduled completion in September 2023.

But in a May 14 session, the County Council heard a presentation from county analysts who outlined a number of fiscal reworkings based on various budget and revenue shortfalls.

The targets of possible cuts included work on four elementary schools — Burnt Mills, Woodlin, South Lake and Stonegate.

Heading into this meeting, the Board of Education recommended to the council that South Lake should remain the No. 1 priority. But the budget analysts recommended the delay of construction on three of the four elementary schools — all but Burnt Mills — for another year.

Council Member Craig Rice, whose district includes South Lake, expressed reservations, saying, he found the move “very concerning” but that “the numbers fall where they fall.” In the end, he voted for the recommendations, as did all nine council members. With that, South Lake’s construction completion date was pushed back to September 2024. (Woodlin was also pushed back to that date; Stonegate, scheduled to finish in September 2024, was pushed back to September 2025.)

“This has been several years,” Dutta Isaacman told WTOP. “Montgomery County Public Schools has known about these issues. Montgomery County Council members have known about these issues. They have come to the school. They have visited the school. They have made commitments. Enough is enough.”

‘They don’t care’

Council Member Rice, who said he’s visited the school many times, told WTOP it’s frustrating that the South Lake project “doesn’t fit in the mix of how the budget falls,” blaming a lack of state funding for having to shift resources around.

Asked why he voted for the delay to South Lake and the other schools despite his misgivings, Rice said, “We know how our budget process works. Once we’ve worked behind the scenes with staff in terms of understanding where the numbers fall, it’s kind of difficult to protest just to protest.”

About the advocates for the school, Rice said, “Look, people need to do what they need to do to advocate. And if that means that they want to try and paint a different picture in terms of folks not doing what they need to do and think that’s going to be the impetus for change, then that’s a strategy that folks can continue to choose to use. For me, I’m about getting the work done.”

Bayles, the PTA president, who is Black, thinks the county is dismissing South Lake because of race, since the student population is mostly made of minority groups and impoverished children.

“They don’t care. Period,” she said.

Rice, who’s also Black, said, “The South Lake decision has nothing to do with race.” The school system said in a statement, “MCPS is committed to equity and excellence. We understand that students, staff and parents want and need a new school building.”

‘Moving forward’

The school system also said, “We intend to return to the County Council in the fall to see if funding for this construction project can be reinstated.” Rice said that his Education and Cultural Committee would meet in the late summer, and said of the South Lake project that he feels “most confident about something like this moving forward versus others.”

He added, “We need to fix this. We’re going to come up with a solution and that’s, at the end of the day, what I promised the community.”

The school system added that “funding will become available in the coming year to accelerate the [new school] project back on schedule.”

Bayles isn’t buying it. “They’re saying that just to shut us up. I don’t believe anything they actually have to say. I’ll eat crow if they do it and it passes.”

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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