by Anastasia Mercer – STAFF, La Crosse Tribune
La Crosse school officials hope creative building usage will allow students to start classes in Southern Bluffs Elementary on Sept. 3, despite a mold-removal project that is taking longer than expected.
"We continue to be on a very tight schedule, but I am still optimistic that we will be able to start the school year in the building," said principal Mary Lin Wershofen. "I did not say everyone will be in their own classrooms."
Southern Bluffs has looked more like a construction zone than an elementary school since surface mold was discovered on the back of interior wall boards adjacent to some windows earlier this summer.
Reoccurring moisture on drywall near the windows has been a problem for several years, said Curt Murray, supervisor of buildings and grounds. The building is 10 years old.
Much of the problem is due to improper window installation, Murray said. The district also discovered moisture was seeping through the exterior brick walls.
Wershofen said creative thinking – like putting one class of students in a computer lab and two others in the music room – should allow every Southern Bluffs student to begin the school year in the building on the first day of school.
The district also has a large-scale contingency plan that involves transferring students to three other elementary buildings in case there’s another glitch in the project, Wershofen said.
"Ninety-eight percent of our kids are bused already," she said. "That actually aids us in doing a contingency plan."
Linda Eber, president of the Southern Bluffs Parent Teacher Organization, said several parents have called asking her about the project and wondering what they can do to help.
The school canceled its Aug. 29 open house and replaced it with an informational meeting about the abatement project at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 27, at Central High School. That way, contractors won’t be disrupted.
Eber said most parents prefer their children start in Southern Bluffs even if the school isn’t "pretty and painted."
"Parents just want to start the school year where their kids are going to be," Eber said. "They don’t want another transition for their kids."
Southern Bluffs Elementary was built for $3.9 million by architects HSR Associates Inc. of La Crosse and general contractor Fowler and Hammer Inc. of La Crosse.
Cost of the abatement project has increased to about $350,000, Murray said. Liability has not yet been determined.
Wershofen said she is especially pleased because every air quality and carpet- and wall-swipe sample continues to show the facility is environmentally sound. Midwest Environmental Management Co. of La Crosse tested indoor air quality at the school last fall and found no significant levels of toxic mold species, according to its report.
Parents were sent another "summer repairs update" letter from Wershofen on Monday, letting them know the mold has been removed and the rebuilding process has begun.
"The fact that we’re rebuilding really allows me to say we’ll be all right," Wershofen said. "I’m far more optimistic than I’ve been through this whole process."