Aformer nurse at the Intermediate School in Ocean Township has filed a workers’ compensation lawsuit against the district Board of Education.
In the suit, Valerie Boodaghians is seeking compensation from the district to pay medical bills accrued after what she claims was an exposure to mold in her nurse’s office at the Intermediate School on West Park Avenue in 2004.
Boodaghians said she was exposed to a fine dust in August 2004 when she opened her office a week prior to the start of the school year.
“I became ill inAugust 2004, but worked the first three days of school,” Boodaghians, who now works as a nurse at the Ocean Township Wanamassa Elementary School, said this week.
“My last day of employment [at the Intermediate School] was Sept. 3, 2004. The doctors had put me out of work for four months,” she said.
Boodaghians said that in April 2005 she was diagnosed with fungal laryngitis from exposure to the mold at the school.
“Because the fungus was in my body for seven months, I developed multiple medical problems,” she explained, adding that her doctors advised her to no longer enter the Intermediate School.
Because of the diagnosis, Boodaghians was transferred by the district to the Wanamassa School in 2006.
Boodaghians’ attorney, Edward Ahearn, said, “In late August, early September 2004, [Boodaghians] entered the Intermediate School prior to the beginning of the school year to open her nursing office.
“She had a dust covering everything, which she had to clean. Day after day she got sicker, until she had to go to the emergency room,” he said.
Boodaghians was treated for laryngeal nerve paresis, a partial paralysis of her vocal cords, at the Philadelphia Ear Nose and Throat Association by Dr. Yolonda Heman-Ackah.
Some mold types can have a systemic effect on the body due to their toxic nature, according to Ahearn.
Boodaghians is now suing the Township of Ocean Board of Education (TOBE) district for workers’ compensation. The suit is currently in the discovery phase.
Boodaghians is seeking compensation for her medical bills and the reinstatement of her sick and personal time.
“I believe that there is still a mold problem, only because there are so many sick people still in the building,” Boodaghians said.
She added that the board has refused to pay her workers’ compensation because she was “chronically ill” prior to being hospitalized.
“We have requested a jury trial,” Ahearn said. “Discovery will last into the summer of this year and more is going to come to light as we have depositions.”
The school district had closed the Intermediate School for a week a year prior to Boodaghians’ hospitalization to treat a mold problem, according to Ahearn.
The district hired a contractor during that 2003-2004 school year to remediate the mold, which was removed without incident, Ahearn said.
“In 2003-2004 when we had to close the school, it was because a great deal of untreated, raw air from outside was allowed to enter the building,” Ocean Township Superintendent of Schools Thomas Pagano said last week.
“The air came in through an open window, and the air conditioning was left on, allowing it to condense,” he said, explaining that the air had entered the building uninterrupted for close to three weeks and eventually led to the mold growth.
Since the start of the 2003-2004 school year, Pagano said, “air quality tests [at the school] have been conducted and come back clean.”
Pagano added that the school periodically reviews its maintenance and cleaning procedures.
Pagano said any claims that moldy conditions remain at the school today are “baseless accusations.”
“Each and every time that someone has expressed concern [with mold], we immediately run air quality tests, and they have all come back negative,” Pagano said. “At some time in the future, if we run a test and it doesn’t come back clean, we will remediate it.”
Following the 2003-2004 closing at the Intermediate School to treat the mold, a humidity alarm system was installed on the school premises, Pagano said.
The system is triggered if the humidity at the school goes above an acceptable level, which could lead to the formation of mold, according to Pagano.
The school district is in the process of reviewing bids for a project to install a new HVAC (heating, ventilation and airconditioning) system at the Intermediate School, Pagano said.
“It should be finished sometime in the not-too-distant future,” Pagano said, adding that the district employs a fulltime HVAC specialist to check the air quality in all of the schools.
New Jersey Educators Association [NJEA] attorney Michael Barrett said last week that the steps taken by the board regarding the mold problem at the school have been insufficient.
The NJEA is a statewide representative of school employees and Barrett is representing the Township of Ocean Educators Association [TOEA], which is comprised of all school employees, including teachers, secretaries, maintenance workers and custodians.
“From what I know, there are still complaints being registered through the association about the conditions of various rooms in the [Intermediate] school building,” Barrett said. “There are enough complaints that it concerns the association and has for some time.
“It’s not our concern that the Board of Education has not done anything; the [humidity] alarms are a positive step taken by the school district.
“I don’t think the school board is indifferent to the problems of its employees; they just haven’t been aggressive enough,” Barrett said.
Barrett further explained that the Ocean Township school district allotted money in last year’s budget for remediating air quality problems at the Intermediate School.
“This leads me to believe that there is a history of air quality issues at the [Intermediate School],” Barrett said. “It became increasingly apparent that there are air problems with the school and we want to have them addressed.
“To [TOBE’s] credit, they have taken steps such as closing the school [in 2003- 2004] and getting a new HVAC.
“But the NJEA believes the problem should be dealt with more aggressively. I think that [TOBE’s] replacement of the HVAC system is a credible step, so we were very pleased when substantial funds were budgeted to do that.”
Funds for the HVAC replacement were budgeted in the spring of the 2006-2007 school year, with work supposedly scheduled to take place in the summer of 2007, according to Barrett.
“[The NJEA] was led to believe that [the new HVAC replacement] was going to take place last summer, and for reasons that are unclear to me the work has been on hold.
“That puts us in this situation for another year, and that is unacceptable,” Barrett said.
Boodaghians points to the upgrade of the HVAC system as an admittance that a mold problem still exists in the building.
he Intermediate School houses 1,400
students in grades five through eight and Pagano said that the district maintains it is doing everything it should to maintain the air quality in the building.
“Everything that we have done [shows] that the air quality is acceptable,” Pagano said. “You are going to have some people who may have difficulty with the air quality in that particular environment and you will find that in workplaces all over the state.
“There is a certain small population in any building that may on occasion, have an allergic reaction to something that may be there,” he said, adding, “The district has nothing to hide.”
Boodaghians said her ultimate goal for the lawsuit is “that the school will become a sage and healthy environment. There is nothing that can get my body back to the way that it used to be, but if I can prevent someone from getting as sick as I am, that would be my ultimate goal.