Law exempts Chicago from safety survey

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Chicago is the only school district in Illinois that is not required to identify and systematically eliminate hazards to children’s life, health and safety—things like peeling lead paint, rotting window frames that let in freezing winds, and decaying ceilings that threaten to cave in.

State law requires every other school district to make a comprehensive survey of such hazards and then to set priorities for eliminating them. That information is sent to the state for review. If state officials affirm that the district has life-safety problems and has set its priorities correctly, the school district gets to levy a special property tax to help it make repairs.

Catalyst asked legislators, state officials and outside experts why Chicago was exempted, and none of them had an answer; the law and the exemption date back to the early 1960s.

To be sure, many Illinois school districts haven’t fixed all their problems—in part because state law requires a referendum to raise overall school property taxes beyond a certain level, and voters haven’t wanted to shell out more money.

“There are lots of districts with unfunded need out there,” says Karen Berman, an attorney with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “But they know what their needs are, and they’re very upfront about them.”

Throughout 1996, Berman and Maria Woltjen, another attorney with the lawyers’ group, repeatedly asked the Reform Board for records of life, health and safety hazards and for its plans for eliminating them.

In October, Marilyn Johnson, the School Board’s chief attorney, reported that all the board had were citations for code violations issued by the city’s health, building and fire departments, according to Berman and Woltjen.

However, citations for code violations are not an accurate gauge of danger, notes Berman, who has reviewed them. For example, she says, a school was cited by the fire department for having too many paper decorations on a classroom wall, while its structural problems went unmentioned.

Further, the city has not inspected every school. For example, the Health Department began systematically canvassing elementary schools for lead-paint hazards in 1993 and still hasn’t gotten to about 20 percent of them.

Chicago’s 1996 Capital Improvement Plan calls for a “professional real estate management” approach to building rehabilitation. So first priority went to projects considered the best long-term investments, not necessarily those that alleviated the greatest immediate problems. “Those schools which will offer the greatest longevity after renovation are given priority,” the plan states.

Hazards not ignored

But the Reform Board isn’t ignoring safety hazards. In fact, spending to neutralize dangers caused by lead-based paint and asbestos has been almost 10 times what the board budgeted for such work in its original Capital Improvement Plan.

The School Board has made use of the city’s lead inspection reports, but not to set priorities. Instead, board officials committed to doing a thorough job of mitigating lead hazards at schools they had already selected for other reasons. In those schools, the board used health inspectors’ reports as a guide.

The board also consulted with the Health Department to make sure that rehab work didn’t cause new hazards. For example, tearing out windows from rooms with lead-based paint can cause a hazard by breaking up the paint around window frames and releasing lead dust into the air. The board came up with safety guidelines to address such situations—including a requirement that rooms be sealed off while work is being done—and the Health Department signed off on them.

Jonah Deppe, who runs the Health Department’s environmental lead division, gives the School Board high marks for keeping her up to date and using good safety standards. But she notes that the board has still not made future priorities clear: Although the 1997 revision of its capital plan commits the board to more than $90 million of lead and asbestos projects over the next few years, none of the projects are named.