Since January 2006, Chicago Public Schools has been cited eight times by the Illinois Department of Labor for having unsafe or unhealthy working conditions in eight schools.
Two of those schools, Montefiore Special School on the Near West Side and Monroe Elementary in Logan Square, have been cited multiple times for roof leaks and other damage that, according to some staff at the schools, have yet to be completely repaired.
The labor department issued the citations in response to complaints filed by the Chicago Teachers Union on behalf of teachers at the schools, according to department records.
Complaints about water damage and other poor conditions at George Armstrong Elementary in West Ridge and Kelly High in Brighton Park are pending. Four other complaints have been resolved without citations, from Whitney and Prussing elementary schools and Farragut and Hancock high schools, according to the union.
Rick Perrotte, who handles safety and security for the union, says many other complaints have been solved informally with CPS.
“We understand that with over 600 buildings, you’re not going to be able to fix everything in a short time,” he says. “But it appears to us that things are delayed, denied, or put on a back burner for reasons we don’t understand. You can’t expect maximum performance when students and staff are working in an unhealthy environment,”
The labor department could fine the district or close all or part of a school if a building remained in severe disrepair. The department is responsible for enforcing the state’s Health and Safety Act as it applies to workplaces.
CPS officials did not return calls.
The union’s concerns are echoed in a December 2006 American Federation of Teachers report on the nationwide problem of deteriorating schools.
Monroe: What caused a fire?
Monroe received the first of three citations in three years back in May 2004. That citation noted that the principal’s office, a hallway and four classrooms showed evidence of water damage, including contact with electrical wires near the principal’s office.
Just months later, in September 2004, a small fire broke out in a kindergarten classroom. Perrotte believes the fire may have been caused by a short in a light fixture that was damaged by water from roof leaks. The cause of the fire was never determined.
“Monroe could have been a disaster,” says John Ostenburg, editor of the CTU’s newspaper, which reported on the incident.
Inspectors returned and cited the school again in January 2005 and January 2006 for roof leaks. “Water residue was evident in some lighting fixtures,” the 2006 citation reads. “Walls along the windows … were wet to the touch. Rusted steel beams were noted. … [M]oisture due to roof leak created an ideal environment for mold growth.”
Kindergarten teacher and union delegate Linda Valentine says roof repairs have apparently stopped the leaks, but water damage has caused ongoing problems, including paint flaking off a wall in a kindergarten classroom (not hers).
“It’s literally falling apart,” Valentine says. “Every day the room has to be swept. [The flakes] accumulate in fine little powder.”
Several other rooms, including the teachers’ lounge and principal’s office, continue to have less serious problems. Valentine says those problems are expected to be resolved this summer.
Montefiore: ‘Cheap cosmetic work’
Montefiore, which serves special-education students, has received four citations in the past two years. The school was first cited in March 2005 for a roof leak that prevented cafeteria workers from cooking and serving food and caused lights to flicker when water seeped into the fixtures. The cafeteria had to shut down for two months. “Review of roof repair records in the school revealed a cheap ‘cosmetic’ work performance by the contractors,” the labor department stated in its citation.
More than a year later, in July 2006, the department again cited Montefiore for water leaks over the food preparation area in the kitchen. The leaks followed recent heavy rains.
“The Employer has repeatedly ignored the safety and health hazards present at the school,” the citation says. It also states that ceiling panels in three rooms had fallen off or were removed due to severe water damage, and moisture had penetrated light fixtures in one of those rooms.
Further investigations on Jan. 3 and April 5 of this year found the problems still had not been resolved. The labor department continued to recommend that a new roof be installed.
“They keep getting spot repairs,” Perrotte says. “And the next rain that comes, the ceiling tiles are out, and it’s buckets and barrels” to catch the leaks.
Eighth-grade teacher Kirk Robertson, a CTU delegate and chair of the union’s health and safety committee, said this year’s April snowfall melted quickly and created new problems.
“It was gushing like it was a waterfall,” he says. “They had to set up garbage cans like an obstacle course in the hallway.”
Students have become anxious and upset over the longstanding problems with leaks in the cafeteria, Robertson says. “They have to shut it down because it’s leaking right over the serving area. [Students] do not want cold sandwiches when they can get a hot meal.”
Ed Finkel is a Chicago-based writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.