Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools must allow investigation of cancer cases at its Smith facility

This evening I spoke at the CMS board meeting to urge district leaders to allow outside investigation of the unusual cancer cases among Smith staff in order to determine whether those illnesses were caused by the facility.  

Among those cases are retired CMS principal (and 2004 district principal of the year) Ynez Olshausen who is currently battling a rare form of cancer, a colleague of mine who had a basal cell carcinoma on her eyelid in her 30s that is far more typical of people over age 70, and multiple individuals who died of cancer at young ages.

CMS needs to get to the bottom of what happened to them.

Over the past few years there have been rumors about a troubling pattern of people who worked at CMS’s Smith facility getting sick. Earlier this year it was reported that the district was closing the building due to widespread health concerns.

What hadn’t been disclosed until recently were the identities of any of those affected. That has now changed since retired CMS Principal Ynez Olshausen revealed she is battling cancer.

I had the absolute privilege of working under Ynez Olshausen’s leadership for about a decade, first at Smith Academy of International Languages and then at Waddell until her retirement. Our library at Waddell and now at SAIL is named in her honor.

Ms. Olshausen built a magnet program that became a national model for language immersion and was named district-wide principal of the year in 2004. One of the things I appreciated about her leadership the most was that she saw each of her employees and students first as people who deserved to be valued for their gifts and supported when they needed it. Not as cogs in a machine but as humans.

CMS is a huge machine, and in large organizations like ours there’s a tendency for the focus to be on numbers in spreadsheets rather than on actual people.

It can be far too easy to forget that our district is made up of individuals who have stories and families and lives.

Ynez 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.

Let’s accept the offer of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to investigate a potential link between cancer diagnoses and the Smith facility, an offer which CMS has reportedly declined.

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.