Swordplay with words Letter writers encouraged to push for Signal Hill school replacement By Chris Woodall A Pemberton committee of parents of elementary school students is trying to put the saying "the pen is mightier than the sword," into practice. The self-titled "Noise Committee" is encouraging fellow parents to write letters to the province's education and health ministers, to Howe Sound School Board trustees and a list of others to keep the pressure up to solve Signal Hill Elementary School's health and overcrowding woes. The idea is that the more pressure that can be brought to the provincial government to support the school board's bid to get capital funding to replace the 35-year-old decrepit school, the sooner that funding may find its way to Pemberton. The school board welcomes the activities of the unofficial committee. The school board can't allow the committee to make its writing pitch through letters carried by school children to their parents, so the Noise Committee has been writing a few letters of its own to local newspapers to make people aware of the campaign, says Shannon Martineau, one of four parents on the committee. "I'm just a parent trying to make some noise," she says of her initiative to do more than sit back waiting for the provincial government to do something. The other committee members are Susanne Meilleur, Janice Snowie and Hillary Downing. "Their efforts are very helpful," says school board chair Judy Bourhis. "It's really important people do write." Most parents of Signal Hill students probably know of the campaign, Martineau says, but every little bit of extra publicity helps. The committee is focusing its efforts on getting a volume of letters out by the new year. "It doesn't seem that the health of the building is an issue with the government," Martineau says. She has been advised by the Signal Hill parents advisory committee that letters should contain a unified message: that the school is overcrowded and unhealthy. "We just hope they are going for the same message," says Bourhis. "We don't want confusing messages." "We all know the issues are endless, but having a united voice to the ministry is very important," says the Noise Committee press release. "Keep letters brief and to the point." Martineau has an address sheet of cabinet ministers, senior civil servants and others to whom letters can be sent. She also has a fact sheet for letter writers to base their concerns on. A June, 1996, level two facility audit of Signal Hill school showed that it earned a failing grade of 37 out of a possible 100 points for such things as architectural, structural, service, safety and functional systems. The school's service systems, for example, rated 5.4 out of a possible 34 points. "The classrooms do not have ventilation," says the fact sheet. "There are reported cases of children and staff with environmental asthma." The fact sheet also notes that Signal Hill's washrooms are inadequate and that the school has "the highest custodial hours per square metre." As for overcrowding, the school has a core capacity of 325 students in Kindergarten to Grade 7, but has a current population of 444, stuffing the overflow into seven portable classrooms. "The number of children out of the building will soon match those in the original school," the fact sheet says. To lend support to the Noise Committee's letter writing push or to find out more, call Martineau at 894-2390. "We're trying to do our part," Martineau says. "We don't want the Ministry of Education saying they didn't hear anything from the people here." The school board, meanwhile, has been doing what it can to make life breathable for Signal Hill students and staff. "The School District has done an exceptional job to date," says Bob Weston, chief environmental health officer of the Coast Garibaldi Community Health Services Society, in a letter to medical health officer Dr. Paul Martiquet. The board has hired engineers with expertise in indoor air quality, installed air exchange systems in all portables and put exhaust ventilation in all classrooms of the old wing. The school has also opened its windows. "The School District is prepared to compromise heating costs to provide fresh air in old-wing classrooms," Weston observes. "We have recommended connecting the ventilation fans to the light switches to assure continual operation," Weston writes. "The actions to date are likely effective and practical until the future of the old wing is determined." Just how well these actions work was to be monitored again in mid-November. Weston also wants to see carpets replaced with linoleum to improve air quality. The Ministry of Health is also onside. There is enough evidence to substantiate a health hazard exists that another study of air quality isn't needed, says Dr. Ray Copes, a medical specialist in the Health Ministry's environmental health, risk assessment and toxicology branch, in a letter to Martiquet. "It appears deficiencies have already been identified," Copes writes. "Assuming the results… are valid… it would be a mistake, in my view, to disregard this evidence and defer action pending an epidemiological (air quality) study." It is hard, however, to prove that the school's bad air has an effect on student or staff health, Copes says. "While exposures at schools undoubtedly have the potential to affect the health of staff and students, schools are only one of the environments in which exposures occur," Copes writes. "Most of the dusts, moulds and volatile chemicals… may also be found in residences and other public buildings," he writes. "This does not mean their presence should be dismissed or trivialized." The concept of air quality studies is not good, either. "The experience to date has not shown (air quality) studies to be helpful," Copes writes. "Unless there is a well-defined question (linking specific cause and effect), I am not optimistic about your chance of success." Instead, a simple walk-through of the school may reveal sources of contamination that can be controlled, Copes says.