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Lead, arsenic found at SF school with troubled building history

A child walks down a hallway in Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 school in San Francisco on April 10, 2018. | Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Lead and arsenic were found in the courtyard of Buena Vista Horace Mann, prompting its closure on Wednesday, The Standard has learned. 

In the process of designing a modernization project for the beleaguered campus, SFUSD found that soil samples showed “higher than acceptable levels of lead and arsenic” in the courtyard, according to an email sent to BVHM staff and families. 

Parents and staff have long urged action over the state of the building, which last fall made news for having rodents in the classroom, tiles dropping from the ceiling and electrical outlets shocking a student. The bilingual Mission District school teaches largely Spanish-speaking, low-income and immigrant students in kindergarten through eighth grade. 

SFUSD will clear up the area and test the broader area, said district spokesperson Laura Dudnick. 

“We are making every effort to ensure students and staff can continue to safely use the BVHM campus while this situation is remedied,” Dudnick said in an email. “We are actively working with public health experts to provide resources to support students, staff and families, with respect to the potential effects of exposure.”

Pressure over conditions boiled over in 2021 when a gas leak affected the campus, leading to the Board of Education dedicating $40 million of remaining bond funds to significantly renovate the nearly century-old building.

Since the school board sent the funds, the district has completed smaller projects to improve electrical outlets, ceiling tiles and pavements. Designs for campus renovations are underway and construction is currently slated to begin in April 2024. 

But even with $40 million to work with, the district estimates that a comprehensive renovation will require significantly more funds. This would depend on a new bond measure approved by San Francisco voters. 

Yard and seismic upgrades, installing an all-electric ventilation system and new roofing fills up the $40 million budget while new bathrooms, refurbished windows and the general modernization of classrooms would cost more, according to a June presentation.

BVHM is one of 14 campuses in the district in poor condition, according to draft facilities assessment data SFUSD released in June. Other schools include Bret Harte, Malcolm X, Bessie and Tenderloin elementary schools.

Board of Education Commissioner Mark Sanchez, who served as BVHM principal about a decade ago, said he wasn’t surprised but added that the district should do a broader review of its campuses for hazardous materials.

“We might want to look at, over time, all of our sites to see if there’s polluted contaminated soil,” Sanchez told The Standard. “It’s just sad, but I think people at the end of the day are relieved it’s going to be abated.”

SFUSD estimated in October that it needs $1.7 billion over the next five years to repair and renovate its buildings, with electrical and HVAC systems making up a large chunk. To meet the need, the district may ask San Francisco voters to approve a $1 billion bond in 2024.