Nov. 24--EL CAJON -- Usually the hub of its working-class community, Magnolia Elementary School sits vacant while scientists conduct tests commissioned to ease concerns over a toxic groundwater plume that stretches beneath campus decades after a chemical leak at the neighboring aerospace plant.
All but three of the school's 21 teachers and 500 of the 700 students packed up and moved into temporary accommodations two miles away at the Bostonia Language Academy for the school year -- at a cost of about $800,000 (largely for school bus transportation and portable classrooms) to be picked up by Ametek, the plant's former owner.
The company will also foot the bill for a new campus ventilation system, and tests -- estimated to cost $300 a day -- overseen by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.
State regulators, Ametek and the Cajon Valley Union School District-hired specialists have done considerable testing of ambient classroom air and soil gases over the years, with both showing the levels of toxins (including trichloroethylene and benzene) at the school are safe under federal and state guidelines. Air and soil monitoring was conducted annually until August 2012, when Ametek started quarterly tests after the state directed the plant to increase the frequency of air sampling because of new regulations.
The school board decided to shutter Magnolia this school year while longer-term tests are conducted in every space -- from the cafeteria to classrooms to offices -- to put to rest any speculation that the campus might be unsafe.
Summer testing, and the first air samples collected this fall (with about two-thirds of campus equipped with the new vents) confirm what experts have said about the school: that it's safe for students to occupy under federal and state guidelines, said Superintendent David Miyashiro.
"Everything is going according to plan," Miyashiro said. "The plan to treat the groundwater has been accelerated. They are doing a lot of things they couldn't do if the campus was occupied."
Miyashiro said Ametek has committed to covering the cost of the school relocation in the way of a donation or payment, but that the details have not been worked out. Ametek declined to comment.
The state will hold a community meeting in January to discuss the testing and early results.
Project supervisor Shabir Haddad said the preliminary test results are consistent with previous tests. He said it was too soon to draw any conclusions about the results, but stressed the campus continues to be safe for students, and that it closed voluntarily.
"Shutting down the school was not something we requested or required, it was not a data-based decision because the levels are what we consider acceptable," said Haddad of the Department of Toxic Substances Control .
The decision to close Magnolia was received with a mix of emotions by teachers and parents.
Those who were unaware of the toxic plume were suddenly concerned about the effects of chemical exposure and upset the issue was not better communicated to employees and families. Others who had been satisfied with government assurances that the plume poses no risks became suspicious when the board voted to close Magnolia. Meanwhile, some parents and teachers loyal to the tight-knit school have been grateful for the additional testing.
"I was worried at first. My kids will definitely go back to the school next year," said Sylvia Pinal, who has two children at Magnolia. "I just hope they let us know what is going on before we move back, so we know the kids are safe."
The district arranged for Magnolia's temporary move in an effort to preserve the school community -- which seems to have been successful, said Principal Amanda Silva.
"We fit in to our space like a jiggsaw puzzle," she said. "It works, but we will be eager to move back."
The vast majority of students and staff stuck together and transferred to their own section of Bostonia. The campus could accommodate Magnolia because it recently reopened as a language program that is gradually adding grade-levels each year.
Meanwhile, lawsuits have been filed in San Diego County Superior Court against Ametek, the plant's former owner, and Senior Aerospace Ketema, the plant's owner since 1997. The complaints, which have not been heard in the courts, seek ongoing medical testing for those exposed to the chemicals that leaked into soil from underground storage.
Some Magnolia families and teachers raised concerns and joined the lawsuit in response to a San Diego Union-Tribune Watchdog report last year about state Department of Toxic Substances Control data showing that a toxic groundwater plume still lurks beneath the school more than 25 years after state regulators discovered it.
Since then, the school district has stepped up communications to parents about the situation by sending letters, emails and holding community meetings.
That kind of information is long overdue for special-education teacher Patti Alvarez, who said she was unaware of the plume of the testing for most of the five years she has worked at Magnolia.
"I had no idea, that was my biggest problem. A lot of us had no idea," she said. "I have had concerns, but I will return to Magnolia."
To make sure families and employees are well aware of the plume and school testing, the principal said she wants to include information about it in Magnolia's annual back-to-school packet.
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