THE YOUNG STUDENTS at Four Corners School got an unexpected surprise on December 1, 2015. They got to go outside.
Four Corners, a tiny K-8 on Portland's easterly limits, typically minimizes access to the outdoors in the chill of winter. A therapeutic school where 47 students' behavioral and mental health issues are addressed alongside their need to learn, Four Corners has a "closed campus." Doors remain locked, windows shut.
But December 1 was special—and not in a good way. Staffers arrived that morning to find sulfuric fumes wafting through the school. Students had to be kept in their buses while the fire department looked into the issue.
A piece of janitorial equipment was quickly blamed for the smell, and students were allowed into their classrooms—only to find themselves headed back outside a while later. The fumes had returned, prompting an evacuation, an inspection of the building's heating system, and, ultimately, several days of school closures.
As you'd expect, the presence of noxious fumes raised concerns for the Reynolds School District (RSD), which runs Four Corners. More concerning was the source of the odor.
According to internal reports, technicians called to examine the school's boiler found it shoddily installed and festooned with leaks. Fumes, potentially containing carbon monoxide, were making their way into a kitchen area very near where students eat lunch and take PE classes.
And technicians turned up something else disturbing: Exhaust from the boiler was exiting the school via a vent next to the fresh air intake. Some of that exhaust was being recycled back into Four Corners' tightly shut building.
"They said they do not believe this was an ideal design," RSD spokesperson Andrea Watson said of the findings last month. "They said this exhaust is too close to where the intake is. But because you can smell it does not mean there are toxins in the air."
Experts say that situation is unacceptable, regardless of potential health concerns. It was worrying enough that a boiler technician immediately ordered parts to remedy the exhaust issue.
That's far more urgency than RSD officials have shown. Documents and conversations with staff at Four Corners suggest the boiler problems were hardly a surprise. RSD had known exhaust fumes were finding their way into the building for at least a year, but had pushed off fixes. And staffers at the school say they've complained about suspicious smells at Four Corners for more than five years, but that administrators have ignored the issue.
"We have kids who are mostly at the poverty level," says one Four Corners staffer, who didn't want to be named for fear of reprisal. "This wouldn't happen in Lake Oswego."
"This has been reported every single winter," said another. "I don't think parents have a clue."
The situation is more unwelcome news for a district that's had its share of issues. According to a recent report in the Portland Tribune, state regulators just fined the RSD more than $3,000 for improperly dealing with asbestos at two of its elementary schools: Wilkes Elementary and Troutdale Elementary. A portion of those fines were levied because the district wasn't telling its employees about potential dangers from exposure.
Four Corners staffers believe something similar has happened in their building, at the corner of SE 146th and Stark. The discovery of the boiler leaks and other problems have set off a wave of anger and suspicion.
The school's principal, Jessica Smrkovsky, has announced her intention to resign at the end of the school year, the school district says, and has pressed RSD officials with a lengthy list of questions about potential health effects the boiler issue might have presented. Among the things Smrkovsky wants, according to a copy of her questions obtained by the Mercury, is an explanation of the relationship between the defects that technicians found in December and "the repeated reports of gas/exhaust/toxic smells in classrooms and hallways over the course of several years."
Another employee wrote an email to the Oregon Department of Education in December, laying out concerns that children at the school "have possibly been exposed to carbon monoxide, as well as a sulfuric gas," and noting, "the boiler has long had issues."
Despite the long-term concerns, parents of Four Corners students have only been offered a part of the picture. Though RSD officials alerted parents to school closures via auto-dialed calls and other alerts when fumes were detected on December 1, it wasn't until late January that the district sent a letter home explaining the issues with the boiler. That letter didn't offer plain language about the more unflattering aspects of the findings, but the district did include jargon-filled technical reports detailing fixes to several leaks in the boiler.
PBS Engineering and Environmental, one of several firms school officials hired to look into the issue, reported in a December 11 memo that carbon monoxide readings taken near the boiler were at levels that would exceed standards set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration if they were distributed school-wide. Another report, submitted by the firm Day CPM, noted "traces of boiler fumes venting into kitchen space."
The leaks were patched, a piece of equipment on the boiler was replaced, and readings taken throughout Four Corners showed acceptable air quality. Still, the December 11 PBS memo noted: "It should be understood that PBS was not able to determine or measure the extent and duration of any [carbon monoxide] and natural gas odor exposures that may have occurred inside the building."
At only one place in the document, in what came off as an afterthought, did a technician refer to the poorly placed exhaust duct, saying officials were "looking at options to relocate the exhaust vent stack to another location so fumes do not go into the HVAC intake system."
The illusion of fixes was short-lived. Days after RSD sent the January 21 letter, it drafted a new one, announcing fumes had again been detected.
"A number of repairs were performed last month that have not fully solved the system problem," read the letter, signed by Smrkovsky. "We are moving forward to replace the boiler."
According to Watson, the RSD spokesperson, the boiler replacement is intended to alleviate concerns over smells. School officials don't believe those odors present any danger to students or staff.
"They decided people are not calming down," Watson said. "They want to fix it right."
Documents show RSD officials took a long time to come to that conclusion. A copy of an internal work order viewed by the Mercury shows the district knew about issues with the school's exhaust pipe—if not the leaking boiler—in December 2014.
"We have many staff complaining of odors," reads the order, dated December 9, 2014. "Looking into ways to extend the exhaust stacks on the boiler and trim trees on north side of building to allow for better ventilation."
Two months later, teachers and other staff were told fixes might be on the way. According to an email Smrkovsky sent to Four Corners staff in February 2015, RSD planned to create "a step-by-step plan for reporting and addressing the smell" and address "the root issue from a facilities perspective."
Employees say nothing of the sort happened—at least, not until the following December.
As of press time, the school district had neither answered the Mercury's questions about how many complaints about odors officials have received from Four Corners staff over the years, nor why they didn't address the issues sooner. Messages left for three Reynolds School Board members weren't returned.
It's unclear whether the situation at Four Corners presented dangers to the people who spend their days there—which, remember, includes a contingent of children who staffers say are often anxious, and for whom frequent unpleasant smells might be inordinately distracting. The district has now installed carbon monoxide detectors throughout the school, and says there's no indication anyone was harmed by the boiler leaks.
But one anecdote, from the Four Corners staffer's December complaint to state education officials, is worth mentioning. The email claims that an RSD representative visited the school on December 1, shortly before the leaks were discovered, and asked students in one classroom if they had signs associated with carbon monoxide exposure. Headaches are a leading symptom.
"When one of the students stated they had a bad headache, the district rep stated, 'It's probably not related,'" the complaint says.
At the Mercury's request, Steve Bump, an industrial hygienist based in Spokane, Washington, looked over the technical reports from Four Corners. Based on the documents, Bump says the boiler leaks were probably small enough to pose little danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. The exhaust issue, he says, "is not an acceptable situation."
"It's a little bit like if you were piping your car exhaust back into the building," Bump says. "Is it a safety hazard? Probably not. Is it something that should have been corrected? Yes."