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As school year opens, Plant High suffers double whammy — an AC failure and mold

TAMPA — Hundreds of families crowded into the pews of Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church night to prepare — not for their spiritual journey but for the start of the new school year at the public H.B. Plant High School across the street.

Orientation for freshmen and new students originally was scheduled for Tuesday in the gymnasium at the South Tampa school. But Plant High administrators had to scramble to find another location when the gym's air conditioning quit working on a day the temperature topped 90 degrees.

At first, they planned to move the session to another venue on campus — the auditorium. Soon, though, it became clear that wouldn't work either. The air conditioning was on the blink in the auditorium, too — and worse, more than 10 square feet of mold was growing inside, administrators would discover.

RELATED COVERAGE: Hillsborough unsure if air conditioning systems will hold up

Air conditioning is a major concern across the Hillsborough School District, Superintendent Jeff Eakins noted in his annual back-to-school news conference Monday. Ten schools got an upgrade during the summer but 38 more will need overhauls or replacement through 2021 at an estimated cost of $340 million — money that Eakins says state lawmakers have been unwilling to provide.

Still, it's the mold that has some Plant High parents worried.

Esther Muench has two children at the school, a junior and a freshman, and she is hoping the problem gets cleaned up in a way that's safe.

"Is the house on fire? No," Muench said. "But mold is not a small thing."

On its website, the Florida Department of Health says, "All indoor mold growth should be removed promptly," although health problems that can be traced to mold are called "unique or rare."

Plant High administrators knew in July about mold in the auditorium, said school district spokesman Grayson Kamm. Workers at the time spot-cleaned the problem areas, Kamm said.

Then on Tuesday, before the evening orientation session, three people contacted the state Health Department in Tampa about mold at Plant High, said department spokesman Kevin Watler. The department referred the concerns to the school district, which has its own health and safety staff, Watler said.

The next day, Wednesday, the school district's environmental team was sent to Plant and was expected to work through Thursday cleaning the entire auditorium, Kamm said. Once mold was discovered again, he said, school administrators decided to take more decisive action.

They now think the auditorium's air conditioning problems are responsible for the mold, Kamm said. While the temperature felt normal, the humidity was high.

In an email Wednesday to all Plant families, school principal Johnny Bush said the environmental team will go over the auditorium's entire interior. A professional contractor is cleaning the carpet, each seat and the curtains.

Bush said in the email that mold appears to be a problem only in the auditorium.

Air quality in the auditorium will be tested and samples sent to an independent lab, Kamm said. Once the air is declared safe, the auditorium will reopen — by next week, school administrators hope.

Fall semester classes start Friday in the Hillsborough school district. Plant may need to shift some class locations for a while to accommodate the cleaning, Kamm said.

A temporary air conditioning system has been moved into the gym so students can use it when school opens. Repairs still are under way on the auditorium's system.

"Our campus is one of the oldest in Florida," Bush said in the email, "and unfortunately we will continue to face issues like this until our state adequately funds public education."

Contact Bre Bradham at