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Thursday, April 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 42.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Madison schools 'pesticide' spraying questioned

One of the pesticide warning signs at O'Keeffe Elementary and Marquette Middle School on Madison's near-east side.
One of the pesticide warning signs at O'Keeffe Elementary and Marquette Middle School on Madison's near-east side.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein
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Bert Zipperer, the former Madison alderperson and school district employee, was walking his dog yesterday afternoon when he was taken aback by something he saw: Warning signs that proclaimed, "PESTICIDE APPLICATION: PLEASE KEEP OFF."

The signs were on the grounds of O'Keeffe Elementary and Marquette Middle school on Madison's near-east side. Written on the signs in red magic marker was the identity of the sprayer: "MMSD," for Madison Metropolitan School District. It warned people to keep off until 6-21, this coming Sunday.

Zipperer was surprised because he remembers that, sometime between 1989 and 1991, when he was on the Madison Common Council, school board member Mary Kay Baum ushered through a resolution that directed the school district not to use pesticides on school facilities except as a last resort.

"If the school district is now putting pesticides on playgrounds...," says Zipperer, not needing to complete his sentence. He says he met a woman at the school Friday morning who reported having chemical sensitivity.

Doug Pearson, MMSD's director of building services, seeks to draw a critical distinction: "Don't confuse pesticides with herbicides." According to Pearson, three school district employees applied herbicides, not pesticides, at upwards of a dozen schools earlier this week.

The applications were to sidewalks and fence lines, where weeds were causing problems. He said it was a once-yearly application that was approved a couple of months ago by the Madison school board, and it was done at a time when the district knew there would be fewer people around.

Pearson says the district does not use pesticides at all except for limited applications on athletic fields.

Of course, that doesn't explain why the signs at O'Keeffe/Marquette say "PESTICIDE APPLICATION." Pearson, apprised of this, reports that the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection includes herbicides in its classification of pesticides.

So the sign that's used refers to pesticides, even though the chemicals applied were herbicides.

Thursday night, as these photos were being taken, the signs caused alarm. A woman was shouting at children and adults who were playing on the field, pointing to the signs. The woman kept saying. "Can you believe they've done this?!"

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