Housing court focuses on small-tickets repairs

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In Chicago, Cook County Housing Court is the last line of defense for children whose school buildings are falling apart. However, a Catalyst review of cases filed by the city against the School Board shows that most of the concerns brought to court are fire-related and relatively small-ticket items.

Further, a spot check with several schools shows that landing in court does not guarantee speedy relief.

Catalyst reviewed 115 of the 129 cases that were filed or closed during the past two years. These cases included 498 instances of city code violations. Defective roofs were cited 23 times; defective ceilings, floors and walls, 81 times. Together with a few lead and asbestos violations, these categories made up 21 percent of all citations.

The remainder consisted mostly of fire-related items like inadequate alarms, broken doors, burned-out exit signs, obstructed doorways and broken railings.

For example, a complaint filed in June 1995 against Clinton Elementary in West Ridge cited just one problem: broken window frames. That problem has not yet been addressed, according to Principal Yvonne Smith. Nor have many of the others outlined by the McClier Corp. in a 1995 systemwide survey of school repair needs. Clinton has had some lead abatement, painting and paving work done, but old flooring and boilers remain.

There was a similar mismatch between a complaint filed against Audubon Elementary in North Center and the findings of McClier. The June 1995 complaint cited roof and ceiling damage, inadequate doors in the boiler rooms, missing caps for the fire hoses and unauthorized construction of a room in the basement. Most of those concerns have been addressed. However, McClier also found defective boilers and plumbing, broken windows and potential environmental hazards—all of which remain.

“It’s 103 years old,” says Audubon engineer Tom Emmert. “We try to keep it clean.” The longer it takes to make major repairs, he notes, the costlier they will be.

Principal Nereida Bonilla says that while her building is slated to be replaced in the year 2000, there are lead hazards that should be addressed now. Her greatest concern is paint chips in the gymnasium, which is used by very young children. “We are losing a generation of kids through lead poisoning,” she says. “The parents are very concerned.”

The February 1995 complaint filed against Ellington Elementary in Austin listed one need: a special fire alarm system to accomodate a teacher who was hard of hearing. School engineer Dennis Bychowski says the board is bidding for that item. But he adds that there are many other repair needs that have gone unaddressed, including 60 windows that need replacing and non-functional ventilators that could pose a problem for children with asthma. He says a new playground will be built this summer.

Bychowski also notes the school is overcrowded. He says the principal has repeatedly asked the board for an addition, but to no avail.

The Clinton, Audubon and Ellington cases were still in court as CATALYST went to press.

Asked about the discrepancies between code violations taken to court and repair needs cited by the McClier study and principals, officials from several city departments maintain that many problems are resolved outside court.

Mike Cosgrove, director of media affairs for the Chicago Fire Department, which conducts most school building inspections, says many problems don’t appear on court dockets because they have been handled through an internal compliance process lasting 15 to 45 days. This process is used whenever code violations do not pose an immediate danger, Cosgrove says. “More things get complied with than taken to court,” he adds.

Deputy Fire Commissioner John Ormond agrees. “As far as the Fire Department’s concerned, everything we observe, we write” on the inspection forms, he says.

Kathleen Walsh, public information officer for the Buildings Department, which conducts some follow-up inspections of violations discovered by the Fire Department, says the city’s process for schools with code violations is designed to catch every violation. “Because schools are of the utmost importance,” she says, “they need to be safe at all times.”

Asked about building problems that appear not to have been dealt with inside or outside Housing Court, Walsh says that city inspectors know what they’re looking for. “Someone from the public may think it’s more serious or less serious than it is,” she says.

Walsh adds that schools can call the city and have inspectors out within a day.

Jonah Deppe, director of the environmental lead program for the Department of Health, says her department is taking a cooperative approach. Inspectors are working with the School Board to make lead abatement an integral part of school improvements outlined by the Capital Improvement Plan and to get lead hazards addressed in those schools not currently slated for CIP projects.

Jonathan Goldman of Lead Elimination Action Drive says that according to a November 1996 analysis, more than 200 schools have outstanding lead violations.

Deppe adds that in her two years on the job, not once has a child tested positive for school-based lead poisoning.

Deppe makes another point: Perhaps principals complaining of lead hazards don’t know they have the power to get them addressed. She says her office can visit a school almost immediately and can perform blood tests on some of the youngest children if parents OK the testing.

Board attorney Marilyn Johnson echoes that point. She says principals may have been confused by recent changes in operations administration. “There’s been a lot of change, particularly in terms of how principals deal with physical-plant issues,” Johnson says. “Obviously we encourage them to deal with their particular property advisor, but sometimes that gets confusing.” As a last resort, a principal can bring his or her complaint straight to schools chief Paul Vallas. “It does get addressed,” she adds.