Amid sewage leaks and strong urine odor, families say Raleigh school needs to be fixed

Sewage leaking into hallways and the smell of urine have become unwelcome parts of life at a North Raleigh school, some parents and students say.

Families at West Millbrook Middle School say the school is "falling apart" physically due to problems such as an erratic heating and cooling system and flooding that sometimes causes classes to be evacuated. Parents and students begged Wake County school board members this week to speed up planned renovations that aren't scheduled to begin until 2021 and be finished until 2023.

“I love West Millbrook dearly," sixth-grade student Elise Edmondson told the school board on Tuesday. "The staff is amazing, and I’m in awe of how they can do so much with so little. So please don’t wait to rebuild our school. We need it desperately.”

The district will look into the concerns raised by the families, according to Tim Simmons, a Wake school spokesman. But he said that it may not be possible to speed up the work unless another construction project is delayed.

“it is an older building, so there will be paint that’s peeling and maintenance issues that need to be addressed," Simmons said. "We’ll look at it again, because we obviously heard them.

"It’s a good school with good parents and good staff. We don’t want them to be in a facility that we believe to be substandard.”

West Millbrook opened in 1976 at the corner of Strickland and Falls of Neuse roads in Raleigh. As early as 2008, West Millbrook was the top-ranked school on the district's list for a major renovation.

But West Millbrook's renovations have been pushed back multiple times.

Simmons said school leaders have been so focused on building new schools to deal with growth that renovations have had a hard time competing for money. Wake's enrollment has grown by more than 100,000 students in the last 30 years, reaching 160,429 this school year.

West Millbrook is on a list of school construction projects that could cost more than $2.2 billion over the next seven years. The Wake County Board of Commissioners could put a school construction bond referendum of more than $1 billion on the November ballot.

Wake's plan now is to spend more than $74 million to rebuild West Millbrook, with construction work starting in three years. But speakers at this week's school board meeting say that West Millbrook can't wait any longer.

“I can tell you that the disappointment and frustration among West Millbrook families has reached a critical point," Michelle Miller, a past West Millbrook PTA president, told school leaders.

Miller cited how one building has such as a distinct smell of urine that her family calls it the "pee building." She said her daughter has had health classes in that building for three years.

"Last year she would get headaches almost every day during health class as the smell would make her nauseous," Miller said. " I think you would agree that learning was impacted, when she could not concentrate due to these headaches.

"The teachers in this building have put up with this issue for years, and that's just unacceptable."

An auxiliary space off the gym at West Millbrook Middle School in Raleigh, N.C., is called “The Mat Room." Parents say the room is in general disrepair and has a strong odor like the rest of the building. Christine Grantham

Three buildings have chronic sewage backflow problems that have caused classes to be relocated when sewage comes up from the hallway drains, according to Jocelyn McGuinness-Hickey, the mother of two West Millbrook students.

McGuinness-Hickey said the problem is that the foundations of the 42-year-old school have now sunk below the drains.

“We just have to keep moving our kids around every time somebody flushes the wrong toilet," she said.

McGuiness-Hickey said that malfunctioning heating and cooling systems in different buildings have also led to classes being relocated, sometimes for months at a time.

Elise Edmondson, the sixth-grade student, and her brother, Will Edmondson, said students notice how bad the conditions are on campus.

Elise said that orange-colored water flows through the pipes in her science classroom because of all the rust in the pipes. Her classes have been evacuated or delayed multiple times because of problems such as flooding and plaster falling from the ceilings.

Will said the contrast was clear when he visited other middle schools.

“There’s literally brown liquid that smelled terrible seeping through the ceiling in my seventh-grade science class," said Will, now a freshman at Millbrook High School. "There’s been dead mice and countless bug infestations, and our gym is hideous.

"I felt embarrassed after seeing the gyms at schools like East Millbrook, Durant and Zebulon, with clean state-of-the-art nice bleachers.”

Some parent volunteers at West Millbrook Middle School in Raleigh, N.C., try to get the gym ready for a talent show because there's no auditorium. Parents and students say the gym looks poor compared to what's found at other Wake County middle schools. Christine Grantham

Christine Grantham, West Millbrook's PTA president, said the need to improve conditions is critical because the school is competing against charter schools and private schools for families who live in the neighborhood. West Millbrook is becoming a magnet school this fall to try to help the school attract students.

"We’re sitting in North Raleigh and parents have the means and the ability and they’re located right there to send their schoolchildren somewhere else," Grantham said.

Grantham invited school board members to visit West Millbrook to see conditions firsthand. But she gave some advice for their visit.

"Come visit us," Grantham said. "Wear layers, just in case the heat or the air conditioning is not working, and your hip waders.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui