Courtney Kramer-Wlcek thought she had pink eye — again. She had experienced the symptoms many times before and wasn’t overly concerned during a trip to Charlotte in 2018.
She made an appointment with an eye doctor she had seen when she had lived in the city, where she taught German for five years at Smith Academy of International Languages. The doctor was the mother of a student she taught at the former K-8 magnet school.
During the check-up, the doctor noticed a bump on Kramer-Wlcek’s lower eyelid.
“She didn’t want to alarm me,” Kramer-Wlcek said. “(But she said) it may be skin cancer, and I should get it checked out.”
Back in Austria, she went in for a biopsy and found out she had basal cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer. It was an unusual diagnosis, her doctors told her, because that type of cancer is normally found in people over the age of 70. She was 39 when they removed the tumor in September 2018.
Kramer-Wlcek is one of more than a dozen former and current Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees who worked in the Smith facility at 1600 Tyvola Road and have reportedly been diagnosed with cancer. The building is planned for demolition as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools probes whether the building caused a cancer cluster in staffers who worked there.
The district announced last week that an investigation is underway at the facility, now called the Smith Family Center. Superintendent Earnest Winston moved employees out of the building in the spring after several complaints were “first brought to executive attention,” according to a school board statement issued last Thursday.
According to documents the Observer obtained, workers at Smith have complained about its deplorable working conditions for years. The breaking point: There are at least four diagnoses of breast cancer, along with lung and anal cancer among current employees.
Mice feces, nests found in desks
“Employees tried for quite a while to get answers from CMS,” said Laura Meier, a Mecklenburg County commissioner who said 13 employees working in the Smith facility contacted her this year hoping she could help. “Listening to the employees when I met with them, I was shocked at what they had to put up with. I cannot believe they stayed, and it speaks to what people will do to keep their jobs.”
The Smith building, according to district documents, was built in the early 1960s and was originally a junior/middle high school. In the early 2000s, it housed the Smith language program. When the language program moved to another location in 2011, non-instructional departments moved in. The center served families who were enrolling new students or sought other services.
Former Smith Language Academy Principal Ynez Olshausen, who revealed that doctors found a rare tumor in her face, told WSOC this month that employees had concerns about the building a decade or more ago. Olshausen said staff members felt classrooms weren’t healthy, and there were problems with water, mold and air quality.
Employees began expressing their concerns in earnest, however, in late January when the number of cancer diagnoses became alarming.
In email correspondence from employees to district officials, dated as early as February and among records CMS released, employees called the building “disgusting” and “scary.” One employee said: “I have always wondered why CMS feels it is safe to put staff in a building they won’t use for students anymore.”
CMS employee Lani Carpenter, in early February, told district officials that since working in the building since 2012, there had been a history of mold, poor air quality, lack of working heating and air conditioning, bug and rodent issues and poor water quality.
“I’ve had bugs crawl up my legs and swished bugs off a table during a meeting hoping that parents haven’t noticed,” Carpenter wrote. “We regularly have dead bugs in the hallway. Not only am I concerned about finding live bugs, but I’m also concerned about the safety of the chemicals used when I find dead bugs.”
Michelle Shaver, who also worked in Smith, emailed the district in February concerned about mice and black mold spots in ceiling tiles. The Observer reached out to Carpenter and Shaver but received no response.
“Teachers and staff have found mice nests and feces in their desk drawers,” Shaver wrote. “The AC and heat in the building are on a broiler system, sometimes we have air and other times nothing works. When it rains, there is always a foul smell coming out of the group bathroom (in one of the hallways.) The water fountains in the building can either be brown, milky white, or have bubbles in it. We have seen people out there testing the water but trust me, you would not want to drink it.”
Other emails pointed out the cancer cases, poor ventilation and mold not just in ceilings but on walls. One employee, who told the Observer she wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said that in February district officials conducted a walk-through of the building after concerns were raised, and a co-worker was told to “open the windows” for ventilation. Other employee emails pointed out that some windows in the building weren’t workable.
Employees at Smith requested the district investigate and begged for communication on a plan of action. On Feb. 25, employees were told they would be relocated due to concerns regarding the work environment. They moved to the former Collinswood Elementary building the week of March 22.
In its statement last week, the board said: “Some CMS employees have raised concerns that the Smith Family Center (‘Smith’) building has produced a cancer cluster among people who worked there. We are taking these concerns seriously and recognize how upsetting they are to our employees who worked at Smith.”
CMS tested building
In October 2018, the district told Smith Family Center staff of water testing results. Smith was among 35 facilities where CMS tested water for lead and copper, which can cause health problems. After testing 20 water-consumption points, officials found “unacceptable levels of copper in the water of one drinking fountain” at Smith.
“That fountain has been taken out of service and the work is complete,” the note reads.
This February, Jeff Mitchell, a district manager of environmental health and safety, forwarded an email about a walk-through of the building to a concerned employee, records show. The walk-through consisted of visual inspections and the collection of carbon dioxide, temperature and relative humidity data. Officials found nothing “outside of normal ranges.”
“Two stained ceiling tiles that appear to be from a previously repaired roof leak was observed and small roof leak was observed in the unused kitchen,” the email reads. “Building Services has been requested to replace the ceiling tiles and address the roof leak above the kitchen.”
Justin Parmenter taught at Smith Academy for International Languages for five years. He remembers the building being damp and a lot of teachers having to use dehumidifiers to keep rooms dry.
“We need to handle this situation not by sweeping the problem under the rug, but by seeing our current and former Smith employees as people who need our support and by working hard to get to the bottom of what happened to them,” Parmenter told the board at its meeting this month.
‘Whole thing is gut wrenching’
CMS plans to demolish the Smith building and sell the property, but not before officials have completed all tests recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health.
The school board has researched the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for investigating cancer-cluster concerns; met with employees of the state Department of Health and Human Services; and this month, met with NIOSH.
County Commissioner Meier told the Observer, though, that not all of the current employees who worked at Smith received an email that Winston sent about CMS’ intent to test the Smith site.
“The employees want to be heard,” Meier said. “I also contacted local officials about it and did receive some feedback, though vague. I understand the legalities of it and not much could be said. In the end, if the building is to blame for these employees’ cancer, CMS must do the right thing and help them. They love their jobs; they want to continue to work for CMS. It is the least CMS can do.”
Meier said the school system is in dire need of new buildings, and yet the state continues to underfund education. In the short-term, she said, “there are a dozen or more CMS employees, who worked in the same building, who have cancer. The whole thing is gut wrenching.”
Kramer-Wlcek worked at Smith from August 2006 until June 2011.
“My skin cancer could have been just from the sun, I don’t know,” Kramer-Wlcek said. “I have wondered why I got it at such a (relatively) young age and when I heard about the rate of people being diagnosed with cancer from Smith, I started to wonder if they could be related.
“I am concerned that the emphasis is purely on the employees. Although this ‘cancer cluster’ is affecting employees, there were many students who spent eight years in that building as well and I think they should be made aware of the situation. I hope that CMS will do whatever is necessary to alert former Smith students.”