CHELTENHAM In one of the region's wealthier and high-ranking school districts, administrators and parents seemed to be caught off guard this year by a demon hiding right under their noses - mold.

The Cheltenham Township school board voted last week to shut down Cedarbrook Middle School in early 2014, scattering about 750 students to four locations across the Montgomery County district.

But the problem is common in older school districts - and wasn't a total surprise in Cheltenham: Administrators and board members have known about mold problems since soon after the school was built, in 1970.

"There were cracks in the wall, and you have to watch that, because water leaks and mold gets in," said Betty Cataldi, a former school board member.

In 1990, Cedarbrook closed because so many students were getting sick. In 2003, several adults there were found to have asthma, pneumonia, and other ailments that some blamed on mold.

In the last decade, the district has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars patching walls, cleaning summer flare-ups, and sealing leaks.

Even though the district knew of the problem, there were no long-term maintenance or contingency plans to deal with the severe recurrence of mold this summer and fall.

"It's been 10 years of Band-Aids and bubble gum, instead of biting the bullet and putting on a new roof or building a new school or whatever," said Lisa Payne Chirico, who has triplets at Cedarbrook and a now-23-year-old daughter who was there in 2003.

Who is to blame?

Parents such as Chirico say they are not necessarily upset about the closure, or even the splitting of Cedarbrook's students while a new middle school is built - a plan that is universally unpopular, but is viewed as the least-bad option.

They're most upset about the urgency of it all. In October, the school district declared the mold problem bad enough to close classrooms and the school cafeteria. Twelve classrooms are now off-limits.

"The emotion from the community is frustration - not with this specific plan, but with the history," said parent Nigel Blower. "There's been several unhappy surprises relating to the maintenance of the facilities, and this is just the biggest one."

Cataldi, who spent 16 years on the school board before retiring in 2011, said previous administrations and boards deserve the blame.

"The issues were not addressed. The people in the administration level of maintenance, our support staff, did not get that information to the board. It was patchwork, patchwork," Cataldi said, adding that even when the board did know about problems, it "just didn't move on it."

Superintendent Natalie Thomas, who started the job just two weeks before this crisis erupted in July, said it was unclear whether the previous administration should have done more.

"If they had said 10 years ago, 'Let's replace a perfectly operating HVAC system,' that wouldn't have made sense either," Thomas said.

Should have prioritized

Cheltenham taxpayers, who have the fourth-highest school-tax rate in the region, will pay handsomely for the district's current predicament.

Estimates include:

$544,000 a year to rent the main building at Gratz College for at least two years, to house some of Cedarbrook's displaced seventh and eighth graders.

Up to $27,500 to hire ex-superintendent William Kiefer as a consultant on the move.

$55 million for a new building, which will take at least four years to complete.

The district has also solicited designs and cost estimates for temporary or modular classrooms to bring Cedarbrook back together in 2015-16, until the new building is finished.

Thomas said the immediate costs will come out of the general operating budget and existing bond funds, and will not require spending reductions elsewhere.

David Cohen, a community activist and father of three, said the district should have prioritized Cedarbrook a year and a half ago, but instead moved forward with another construction project - the rebuilding of Wyncote Elementary.

Cohen and others said previous school boards appeared to be crossing their fingers, hoping nothing bad would happen so they wouldn't have to rearrange their construction timeline.

"They said they weren't going to spend any money on Cedarbrook because it wasn't their turn," said a former Cedarbrook teacher who said she developed lung nodules and has had ongoing medical issues after being exposed to mold for years. She did not want to be named for fear of backlash.

The district had a list of aging buildings in need of update. It rebuilt Myers Elementary in 2009, Glenside Elementary in 2011, and Cheltenham Elementary in 2013. Wyncote is under construction now, and Thomas said Cedarbrook and Elkins Park Middle Schools were next.

Cheltenham High School and the district administration building - both of which also struggle with mold, water leaks and asbestos - remain last on the list.

Long-term plan

With the new superintendent, two new board members and a highly engaged community, the district is already feeling the pressure to create a long-term plan.

In a Dec. 3 facilities committee meeting, board members debated the relative merits of replacing the high school's water system as a whole, or in pieces over time.

"We sit at this table and speak about deferred maintenance over all these years. This is an example of that. When we put off doing something until later - that's how we got where we are now," said board member Stephanie Gray.

Although the cost was a little higher, the board voted to replace the whole system, right down to the faucets and knobs.

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