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In Potomac, Portable Classrooms Are a Persistent Headache

Emma Parven, Katie Jenkins and Sarah Kaplan attend Bells Mill Elementary in Potomac. Katie and Sarah have suffered medical problems.
Emma Parven, Katie Jenkins and Sarah Kaplan attend Bells Mill Elementary in Potomac. Katie and Sarah have suffered medical problems. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

Still, few schools have generated as many reports or as much publicity over their portable classrooms as Bells Mill. Then again, few have had quite so many lawyers, doctors, politicians and executives in their parent ranks.

On this issue, the parents have found themselves fighting something else: the community's reputation as overprivileged. "When you talk about Potomac, they kind of roll their eyes and say, 'Don't they have everything already?' " said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery), who introduced the bill.

Bells Mill awaits a multimillion-dollar renovation, scheduled to begin in 2008. Three other schools are ahead of it on the school system's priority list.

Within the Montgomery school board chambers, that list is considered sacred. So when Bells Mill parents showed up in force at two consecutive board meetings last month to demand that the school be moved up on the list, their proposition bordered on blasphemy.

Some board members offered reassurance. Valerie Ervin (Silver Spring) spoke for the skeptics. "We know there are other schools out there in similar condition," she said. "Is there some queue-jumping going on?"

That hasn't stopped the Bells Mill parents, who have alerted politicians and local media with each turn of events.

They are convinced that someone -- either the school principal, Jerri Oglesby, or someone at a higher paygrade -- has orchestrated a coverup to hide the full extent of the mold problem. The principal says she has hidden nothing.

"I know that each parent has their child that they worry about," Oglesby said. "But I have 468 children that I worry about. And I also have 68 staff that I worry about."

Parents are not the only ones complaining. Teachers who have spoken up about air quality in their classrooms say they have been harassed, muzzled and threatened with reassignment.

All three fifth-grade teachers found anonymous notes in their boxes last month, advising, "You need to keep your mouth shut." Oglesby called the missives "disgusting" and said her teachers have not been silenced.

Teachers reported respiratory problems in two of the portables at Bells Mill, Buildings 4 and 5, as early as 2003, Oglesby said. Maintenance staff installed dehumidifiers and machines to better circulate the air. Oglesby said she thought the problems were isolated.

This year, the health complaints seemed to multiply. A teacher in Portable 4 brought in a doctor's note that attributed her severe respiratory symptoms to her work environment. A teacher in a new portable, No. 6, developed a stubborn respiratory infection the first week of school. And the malaise seemed to be spreading to students.

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