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McCall's Bryan Cooksey Weighs In On Termites In Schools

In: Termite Control

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PCT Media Group
Experts share IPM best practices for taking care of termites in and around the classroom.

When it comes to treating termites in schools, you might not think much has changed in the past decade.

Most teachers still can't tell the difference between a termite and a flying ant, and nothing delights students more than swarmers on standardized testing day.

But in fact, the pest management professionals contracted for this service face a host of new challenges and opportunities.

The Incredible Shrinking Budget. Like many of us, school districts are pinching every penny these days.

It's very difficult to get a school to commit to treating the entire structure, said Jamie Smith, vice president of Rid-A-Pest in Wilson, N.C. He couldn't get a district to agree to more than spot treatment, even when termites were found in five different areas of a building.

The last time Smith treated an entire structure was seven years ago. Now, it's spot-treat and we'll see you at the next crisis. "It's frustrating to me," said Smith, who spot-treated five schools through July. Limited treatment isn't always the best long-term solution and, he said, "we want to give the best treatment possible."

Cash-strapped districts are willing to take more risk, said Bryan Cooksey, president of McCall Service in Jacksonville, Fla. He holds a termite bond with Duval County School District and recently had to cut the cost in half to keep it in place. "It was interesting going through that dialogue with the district," recalled Cooksey, who agreed to the reduction to keep competitors away.

When it comes to treating schools, "I wouldn't count on an annual renewal," advised Dr. Mike Waldvogel, extension specialist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

When Duval County School District, which laid off 250 employees this year, ran into a drywood termite issue on a school remodel, it chose a localized, liquid borate treatment over fumigation. The price difference was $27,000, said Roger Collins, branch manager of McCall Service in Jacksonville.

This approach was possible because the company pinpointed the infestation using radar-thermal-moisture technology.

Dr. Mike Merchant, extension urban entomologist at Texas AgriLife Extension Service in College Station advised PMPs to offer school districts a range of treatment and cost options. "Schools are cheap," he said, so PMPs need to provide multiple creative solutions, not just their premier treatment package.

Waldvogel urged professionals to identify ways to control the problem within economic reason and "not find out we made a mistake by limiting treatment." Spot-treatment might encompass a 40-foot-long area, he reminded.

Bidding Concerns. One of the biggest challenges PMPs face is the bid process. Competitors who price a job under a threshold amount to prevent it from going out for bid risk getting saddled with a problem they can't afford to fix.

In Florida, some PMPs are bidding public buildings at a flat square foot rate, said Cooksey. The public entity is obligated to take the lowest commodity price. But when did pest control become a commodity, asks Cooksey. Collins said the going rate is about $45 — a fraction of the price it was three years ago — for not only the building interior but outside property too.

School IPM specialist Janet Hurley of Texas AgriLife Extension Service questioned how PMPs who bid low can make a profit or feel good about themselves. She mentioned one contractor in Louisiana who charges $20 per school campus. "I have no idea how they're literally doing pest control."

Eddie Martin, president of Terminix Service Company in Metairie, La., said termite control for many old school buildings went to the low bid pre-Katrina. Often, "this ended up in failure."

Consider termites isolated on the third floor of a three-story school building: Performing yet another soil treatment would be futile. Technical knowledge is required to figure out what's causing the real problem, he said.

Fortunately, school districts are starting to realize this. Rather than blindly take low bids, they're asking prospective treaters to participate in an interview process to present their expertise and treatment advice.

Formosan termites are "what turned the corner down here," said Martin. "Everybody here knows someone who's spent $25,000 fixing their house."

Building Complexity. A perennial issue is dealing with complex building construction. Examples include floating slabs, supported slabs, decades-old additions that closed up crawlspaces and renovations that limit access to expansion joints. These and other issues make it difficult to determine where termites are coming in.

"If you can't inspect, how do you treat?" asked Hurley. "It's the hidden stuff that kills you."

Merchant agreed. "It's not going to be a simple treatment like a home."

Commercial construction in general tends to be more complex, said Carl Falco, regulatory affairs and training consultant and former director of the North Carolina Structural Pest Control Division. PMPs need to have this knowledge to be successful.

Without knowing the history of the building, professionals may find exterior liquid treatment alone won't cut it, added Waldvogel.

Because of construction issues, Bryan Gaspard, president of J&J Exterminating in Lafayette, La., is "aggressive on the baits."

Even new schools can have termite issues built right in. For instance Hurley visited a school in Louisiana where the contractor left wood frames in the expansion joints, building around them to create a "termite welcome sign." Surprisingly, the school doesn't have termites — yet.

More Regulations. At present, 16 states have mandatory school IPM regulations; seven have voluntary rules. Most have requirements for interior and exterior posting, pre-notification, re-entry, and/or applicator training. Eleven states do not: Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Utah. (See chart online at Click on "Online Extras.")

Hurley believes most states eventually will adopt some kind of school Integrated Pest Management regulations. This will serve as a preemptive strike, she said, because they don't want federal law.

Whatever state, local or school district regulations or preferred products are on the books, PMPs must understand and follow them to the letter.

On Oct. 1, North Carolina's law took full effect after a five-year phase-in. Schools must have a working IPM plan, including a designated IPM coordinator, or they "turn into a pumpkin," Waldvogel quipped.

A working group of Florida industry, university, education and regulatory officials are meeting to determine the best way to address pesticide use in school, day care and health care facilities without creating new regulations. Cooksey says the solution will come down to better communication by the industry, such as explaining what customers are getting and what they can expect.

In Texas, which has some of the strictest pesticide regulations in the United States, PMPs generally can use any products they feel necessary to get the job done. But they also have to justify their use to the school board and assure them there will be no odor or possible exposure to children. "After all, we're talking about money and investment in the school facility and they've got to protect that investment," said Merchant.

A challenge for Chris Mills, IPM specialist for the Union County School District in Monroe, N.C., is coordinating irregularly scheduled termite treatments to occur at times when students aren't present but also meet a 72-hour pre-notification requirement. An automatic phone messaging system helps him communicate with parents and staff. Mills frequently speaks to school districts about IPM and has received two national, two state and one regional award for his IPM program covering 53 schools.

Not complying with notification requirements "can get you into trouble," reminded Falco.

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