Portage Public Schools has agreed to pay $432,000 to settle workers’ compensation claims involving four teachers who said they were disabled by fumes and vapors during the renovation of Portage Northern High School.

The board voted on Monday to approve the settlement, and Superintendent Ric Perry read a statement saying the settlement is not an admission of liability and “extinguishes all claims” involving the employees.

The money will come from the district’s operating budget because Portage Public Schools has a $300,000 deductible per workers’ compensation claim. Since the teachers left on different dates, the district’s insurance company maintains they are separate events and the deductible applies to each.

The board’s motion and its statement did not name the teachers, but their names became public when they filed lawsuits last fall against AVB Triangle, the construction company that did the renovation. The lawsuits are separate from the workers’ compensation claim and do not name Portage Public Schools as a defendant.

The women are Jennifer Baker and Angelique Biehl, Portage Northern science teachers who went on medical leave during the 2009-10 school year; Judith Bradtke, special-education teacher who retired in 2010; and Beth Smith, who remains a teacher with Portage Public Schools.

In the lawsuits, the women claim they were exposed to toxic chemicals that severely impaired their health and left them with ongoing medical problems. The lawsuits are pending before Kalamazoo County Circuit Judge Gary Giguere.

AVB Triangle is a partnership of American Village Builders in Portage and Triangle Associates of Grand Rapids, which has experience in school construction. The partnership was formed in 2008 to oversee four major construction projects for Portage Public Schools, including the building of two new elementaries and the new Portage Central High School, and a $31 million renovation of Portage Northern High School.

The renovation of Portage Northern began in the summer of 2009 and was finished in the summer of 2011.

Complaints that construction fumes were sickening some staff and students first surfaced in October 2009, according to the lawsuit.

In late November 2009, teachers and students moved into the newly renovated science wing, only to move out two weeks later when Baker and Biehl became ill and were diagnosed with inhaling toxic chemical fumes.

After air-quality tests failed to identify a problem, classes were moved back into the science wing in March 2010. Also that spring, the district formed an air-quality task force at teh school to monitor complaints and concerns.

In their lawsuits, Biehl and Baker said their health continued to deteriorate over the winter of 2009-10 and they have not been able to work since then because of respiratory and neurological problems. The suits by Smith and Bradtke cited similar health problems.

When the first lawsuit was filed last September, Portage Public Schools and AVB Triangle issued statements saying that the adequate safety precautions were in place.

Published in the Kalamazoo Gazette on May 8, 2012

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