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CMS board launches investigation of potential cancer cluster at Smith Family Center

Smith Center WSOC.jpeg
The former Smith school and office building at 1600 Tyvola Road is now vacant.

After months of complaints from employees, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board announced Thursday that occupational health experts will investigate whether cancer cases are linked to building conditions at the former Smith Family Center.

CMS closed the building on Tyvola Road in March, after hearing employee concerns about building conditions and people who were diagnosed with cancer after working there.

Smith was originally Smith Language Academy, a K-8 magnet school. When that program moved to Waddell about a decade ago CMS converted it to offices serving families who were enrolling new students and seeking other services.

Emails released as part of a public records request show CMS administrators discussed reports of cancer cases among employees and a possible environmental review of the building in February. The district moved employees to new locations in March and April.

CMS told reporters who inquired about cancer cases that CMS is legally forbidden to discuss employees' health.

The question resurfaced last week when WSOC aired an interview with former Smith Language Academy Principal Ynez Olshausen, who revealed that she also has cancer. WSOC says she’s the 12th former Smith employee who has disclosed a cancer diagnosis.

Olshausen said in the interview that employees had concerns about the building a decade or more ago.

"There were members of the staff who felt that the work environment or what was happening in their classrooms was not healthy," she said. "We had issues with water and mold. We always had issues with air quality."

At Tuesday’s board meeting Justin Parmenter, who taught at Smith, urged the board to investigate.

"Ms. Olshausen and the other Smith staff who have been diagnosed with a variety of illnesses deserve a thorough and transparent investigation into any possible connection between the years they spent working in the Smith facility and their medical conditions," he said.

Thursday afternoon the school board released a statement saying the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health will investigate whether conditions qualify as an occupational cancer cluster. The building won’t be demolished until all recommended testing takes place, the statement says, and the results of the investigation will be made public.

"These are serious and frightening issues for our employees, and we share their concerns," the statement says. It adds that CMS has already researched federal guidelines for researching cancer clusters and met with experts in the field.

When asked why the announcement came from the board rather than Superintendent Earnest Winston, board Chair Elyse Dashew said Friday it's "one and the same – we're of one accord."

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.