School takes charge, wins

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Having gladly been taken to court, Van Vlissingen Elementary took its case into its own hands and wound up with more than School Board attorneys had sought on its behalf.

The Van Vlissingen main building first came to court this past November, on the heels of a case that brought a demolition order for its decrepit modular building. Suspecting lead hazards in the main building, Local School Council Chair Debi Otikor and Principal Millicent Russell had commissioned testing by the non-profit Lead Elimination Action Drive. The tests showed unacceptable levels of lead in several parts of the school.

Learning the results, Housing Court Judge Preston Bowie asked the board to conduct more thorough tests of its own; those tests also showed unacceptable levels. On Nov. 25, Bowie took the unusual step of visiting the school himself; joining him were board representatives, city inspectors, LSC members and school staff.

He reported his findings in court on December 5. “I think the school is in horrible condition and I am really surprised at the board,” Bowie said, according to court transcripts.

He went on to describe the building as “completely neglected” and said it was “demoralizing” for the whole neighborhood. Bowie told board attorney John Wren to come up with a timetable for repairs. At a hearing on Dec. 23, Wren presented a $4 million-plus plan for refurbishing the school, including extensive lead abatement.

According to the transcripts, Otikor then announced that on Dec. 17, she had secured a promise from Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas for a new building by the spring of 1998. Otikor said a Chicago Tribune reporter was present when Vallas made his promise. “I did hug the man, you know,” she said.

The board then filed a modified rehab plan, providing about $1 million in repairs to make the building safe for children until a new one is built, according to board attorney Michael McKnight.

The board was not as quick to respond to problems at Van Vlissingen’s modular building. That case first came to court in June 1995, after the building was cited for fire hazards; it also had bad leaks and missing tiles in the ceilings.

By Dec. 5, 1996, the board had repaired some doors, but the major complaints were still outstanding. At a court hearing that day, Lt. Ronald Essex, a veteran city fire inspector who had visited the modular building seven times, testified that it should be vacated. “I’d hate to fight a fire in that building,” he told the judge.

Wren repeatedly challenged Essex, contending the building could not be proved hazardous. Finally, Judge Bowie interjected, “And considering that it’s occupied by children and the building does collapse and somebody gets killed, then where are we?”

Bowie also pressed Wren for a complete structural report on the building. When Wren said he’d produce one in 24 hours, Principal Russell became concerned. “Everything is going to be cosmetically repaired,” she warned. “You fix it, and they’ll shut up.”

Wren replied, “Well, let’s not worry so much, Your Honor.”

One week later, Bowie ordered the modular building closed. It is now slated for demolition. Both Van Vlissingen cases will remain open to chart the board’s progress.

Despite the unusual turn of events, Wren describes the proceedings as “pretty much a routine building court case. I hope we get them all cleared up as quickly as we can.”

Debi Otikor and Millicent Russell declined to talk with Catalyst about the cases, expressing concern that media coverage might be harmful.