Parents outraged over handling of fire at Sierra House Elementary School
A fire at Sierra House Elementary School damaged more than a classroom, according to parents, who say the decision to quickly reopen the school has eroded their trust in district leadership and revealed a toxic culture emanating from the very top.
The damage is so severe that some are now calling for the termination of Superintendent James Tarwater and the resignation of the previous board president and current Lake Tahoe Unified School District board secretary Barbara Bannar.
All this comes as the school board prepares for potential litigation resulting from the situation.
At the heart of the controversy is the district’s decision to re-open Sierra House less than three days after a small fire erupted in a reading intervention classroom on Nov. 11. The fire — which was caused by electrical overload — was contained to one classroom and quickly extinguished.
However, the smell of smoke spread throughout much of the building including an adjacent hallway, a multi-purpose room, the main hallway and the area known as the upper pod, which houses second and third grade classrooms, according to a Nov. 20 update posted online by Tarwater.
The school was closed Monday, the day after the fire, for Veterans Day. It remained closed Tuesday but reopened Wednesday, Nov. 14, resulting in one day of missed class.
“It was determined that, based upon the excellent outside air quality, and available resources, that measures to be taken for the safe re-entry and re-occupation of the school within only two days, were practical and attainable,” Tarwater wrote in his Nov. 20 report.
That assumption ultimately proved to be false, according to numerous accounts from parents and teachers who reported a variety of illnesses after returning to the fire-damaged school.
“It’s undeniable that our kids were exposed to toxic chemicals,” parent Moises Estrada, a firefighter and emergency medical technician for the past 25 years, said at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
Echoing sentiments shared by other teachers, Sierra House teacher Heather Hart told the board at a Dec. 6 meeting that she assumed the school was safe to return to when it reopened Nov. 14.
Instead, Hart said, the nurse’s office was flooded with sick children.
The illnesses followed by allegations of abysmal communication ignited outrage that seemed to hit a crescendo Tuesday night when the board was met with a chorus of criticism.
“Leadership’s inability and unwillingness to communicate clearly had endangered our students and staff,” parent Julie Lowe said while reading a letter she and her husband, a firefighter, prepared. “It occurs to us that this has also exposed a dangerous culture where unionized staff are afraid to speak up when they have concerns for fear of retaliation or demotion.”
Some were more direct.
“I would like to see Barbara Bannar, president of the board, resign. I have no confidence in your ability to lead this board,” parent Donielle Morse said, sparking an outpour of applause and cheers. “I would like to see Dr. Tarwater terminated without pay … because I do not believe that you are capable of making decisions that will keep our children safe.”
School board member Larry Reilly, who later in the same meeting was selected by fellow board members to serve as board president for the next year (the board votes on a president and clerk each year), said he was limited in how much he could say due to the potential for litigation.
“We need to move forward,” Reilly said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
‘Stand by my record’
Neither Bannar nor Tarwater told the Tribune they plan on leaving.
“No,” Bannar said Tuesday when asked if she had any intention of resigning. “I’m not board president any more.”
Bannar, who was first elected to the school board in 2003 was voted board secretary on Tuesday, said she understands the anger expressed by parents.
“Oh yeah, it’s absolutely understandable, it’s our kids,” she said. “But there isn’t a single person on this board, or Dr. Tarwater, or on the admin team that wants anything but the best for kids. There’s absolutely not.”
Asked if she thought the district erred in reopening the school when it did, Bannar pointed to a draft remediation protocol report presented to the board Tuesday.
“Currently there are no federal or state standards for the assessment or remediation of fire-related contaminated sites,” the report states.
Bannar said the district relied on information from the experts hired following the fire, particularly the local SERVPRO franchise.
“We were going by the experts that we hired,” she said.
“They definitely failed to perform for what our parents needed, which seems to be above and beyond … and that’s OK. It’s their kids, and we’re just trying to respond to give them what they need.”
Tarwater also pointed to SERVPRO — a full service restoration company — in response to a question about the decision to reopen the school.
“I’ll stand behind my record and when SERVPRO took over … they called the shots.”
The situation has evolved since then, a fact solidified by further testing, Tarwater added.
However, not everyone agrees with that characterization.
John Allen, owner of the local SERVPRO franchise, said his team was hired and immediately went to work. They were brought in under the premise that the district wanted to reopen the school as quickly as possible, Allen told the Tribune.
They followed national guidelines and provided the best information possible, but SERVPRO never said whether to open the school or not.
“Our job is to give the best information,” Allen said. “It’s their job to make the decision.”
Several SERVPRO recommendations were not carried out in the timeline suggested by the company, according to Allen.
SERVPRO recommended air sampling be conducted prior to reopening the school. That did not occur until Nov. 16, two days after the school reopened. SERVPRO also recommended an industrial hygienist be brought on board early in the process. The hygienist, Premier Environmental Consulting, did not conduct its preliminary inspection until Nov. 27.
Parents and teachers who have spoken up point to Tarwater as the ultimate decision maker, adding that he overruled Sierra House Principal Karin Holmes. Those same people say Tarwater has amassed too much power as the top administrator, which has lead to a culture where educators are hesitant to speak up for fear of reprisal.
Asked about the call for his termination, Tarwater, who was hired as superintendent in 2005, said a few loud voices were responsible for most of the commotion, and that he stands by his record.
“I stand by my record. I stand by the 14 years. I stand by the hundred million dollars that we built buildings and programs for kids, and worked with the college …”
Any characterization that he prioritized anything over student safety, he added, is “crazy.”
“The appalling thing to hear is ‘you don’t care about kids.’ It makes you sick. I know these kids,” he said.
In order to allow for the necessary restoration work to continue, all students and staff are being moved out of Sierra House to the Boys and Girls Club site at Al Tahoe Elementary School starting Dec. 17.
They will be running split days from Dec. 17-21.
Kindergarten, first and second graders will be in class from 9 a.m. -1 p.m. Third, fourth and fifth grade classes will attend school from noon-4 p.m.
All students on site will be served breakfast and lunch.