Tales from the rehab front

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Waiting for windows, welcoming parks, hoping for heat, getting the lead out

A holding pattern

Howland Elementary

Lawndale

Howland School for the Arts in Lawndale was in such bad shape and so underused that the Board of Education voted in June 1995 to close it.

Two months later, Howland, along with five other schools slated for closing, got a reprieve from the new School Reform Board of Trustees. But by then, more than a third of its faculty had taken jobs elsewhere, and Principal George Dalin had to hastily recruit 11 new teachers, most of them rookies.

Since then, the board has undertaken—but not completed—extensive rehabilitation work; board records show that over $750,000 was spent on rehab projects at Howland in the last year alone. But the building remains a patchwork of ramshackle windows and freshly-painted walls.

Last school year, the board eliminated some lead and asbestos hazards, continuing work begun in 1994 in response to an exposé by WBBM-TV’s Pam Zekman. It installed new boilers. And it began but did not complete repairs to the roof and tuckpointing. A barricade erected to protect passers-by from falling debris remains. The barricade was blown down by heavy winds last spring, but was put back up.

In addition, the board started but did not complete an overhaul of the gym, which was closed in 1995, after city inspectors declared it unsafe. The gym remains closed because of a few fire-code violations, which Dalin says would now take only $6,500 to correct.

Howland’s fine-arts curriculum is hampered by the lack of an auditorium. More than two years ago, the Chicago Building Department declared the auditorium unsafe, forcing assemblies into a large alcove of a 1st-floor hallway. “We call it the Little Theater,” says Dalin.

Meanwhile, the city’s Fire Department is suing the board to get it to repair or replace broken windows and rickety window frames at Howland. The school had been scheduled to get new windows last spring, but by last fall, those plans had been shelved. Officials told Dalin that Howland was in “a holding pattern,” as the board decided whether to finish renovating it or to demolish it.

The latest version of the board’s Capital Improvement Plan lists only $120,000 in renovation work for Howland, far less than the cost of needed repairs: new windows, tuckpointing, roof work and an overhaul for the auditorium. At press time, no comment was available from the School Board about what renovations are planned.

Thanks to the new boilers, though, hallways are toasty warm on winter days, even if some classrooms are still drafty because of the old window frames.

A personal project

Bogan High Ashburn

With its aluminum and glass exterior, Bogan High School is a 1950s classic—too classic in the eyes of Principal Linda Pierzchalski. So when architects working for the School Board proposed to replace the school’s unpainted aluminum window frames with more of the same, Pierzchalski balked.

“I said, ‘No way are you putting anodized aluminum back on this school. It’s ugly. It’s ’50s. This school needs character.'”

Bogan now sports red window frames that cut a broad plaid pattern across the facade’s new gray aluminum panels.

A stickler for detail, Pierzchalski also has demanded—and received—such extras as tassels on window shades and a cleaning of window sills that had gathered dust for more than 30 years.

“It’s my building, and these are my kids,” says Pierzchalski, who works hand-in-glove with the architects overseeing the building’s $6 million renovation. “It’s like, you know what you want your house to be like—and I know what I want for my kids.”

She’s very pleased with the work so far, most of which has tightened up the building’s exterior. “The building used to be so cold,” she says. “And you could hear every car that went by on 79th and Pulaski, every truck. Now, we’re insulated, and basically soundproofed. You wouldn’t even know that it’s 35 degrees out, or that there’s a major road right outside this office.”

Now she’s looking forward to the work mapped out for Phase II, which includes new light fixtures, heaters, lunchroom furniture, a public address system, a makeover for a swimming-pool locker room, new plumbing for the pool, and changes to make the building accessible to people with disabilities.

Phase III, she says, is supposed to bring new lockers, hallway flooring and a paint job. And still she plans to ask for more: An L-shaped school sign, landscaped into the corner of 79th and Pulaski, with the school’s mascot, a tiger, embossed into the metal. “As we get the refurbishment finished, it’ll look more and more like a suburban campus,” she says.

Bogan was built in 1959 and designed to last only 20 years—school planners figured the area’s supply of high school students would have dwindled by then. But Bogan has been overcrowded for years; built to accommodate 1,750 students, the school enrolls 2,000. Kids attend in staggered shifts, with some starting school as early as 7 a.m. and some finishing as late as 5.

About half of Bogan’s students come from outside its mostly white, middle-class neighborhood, but Pierzchalski says that’s changing. She expects the current facelift will draw still more neighborhood families. “We’re hoping … once they see the new campus, they won’t be so anxious to send their kids to Catholic schools,” she says.

“It seems funny, but it seems like people from central office have taken this on as a personal project,” she adds. “A lot of them live in the community, and an attractive school raises property values. If we could improve our image, that could stabilize the community and improve the image of public schools.”

As a case in point, she notes, “One lady called me up and said, ‘That school doesn’t look like a garbage dump anymore.’ I mean, that’s actually what she said.”

Campus park, not the basics

Nicholson Specialty School

Englewood

Carol Edwards, principal of Nicholson Specialty School, isn’t complaining, but she is concerned.

On the up side, her school’s faulty heating system got fixed shortly after she mentioned the problem to Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas at a neighborhood meeting called by Ald. Shirley Coleman.

“This week, we’ve had heat,” she said in late November, relieved that the school was facing the winter with its boilers freshly patched. By that time, temperatures had already dipped below freezing several times—and the school had not had any heat.

On the down side, Nicholson needs a major overhaul and isn’t scheduled to receive it. Repair workers told her that next time the heating system goes out, it will probably be beyond fixing. Nicholson’s windows are no match for the elements; a moderately strong wind can blow most of them open, even when latched. And as she watches the school’s old floor tiles crumble, Edwards worries about asbestos becoming airborne.

While Nicholson desperately needs the basics, what it’s getting is an extra: a $200,000 campus park. A joint effort of the Chicago Park District, the School Board and the city, the project will refurbish Nicholson’s playground and an adjoining field, complete with landscaping, trees and new playground equipment. It will even have an “outdoor classroom” with a perimeter defined by shrubbery.

Edwards thinks the park is a good idea. “These children don’t currently have a playground accessible to them,” she notes. “It’s amazing that the building is still standing, considering.”

The board held several meetings at the school to solicit public opinion on the park. As a result, it will have playground equipment the right size for older kids as well as toddlers, and it will not have a basketball court—senior citizens who live across the street were worried it would become “a place to loiter.” Also, since neighbors want the place vacated by 9:30 p.m., the park will have a fence.

In years past, the board attended to some of Nicholson’s basic needs, but the work proved faulty. A roof installed three years ago leaks, causing damage to paint and flooring in the gym. Also, the roofers did structural damage to the building, making it necessary to install braces to support the school’s western wall.

The school got several new exit doors over the past two years, but two were installed incorrectly. One has no weather stripping underneath it, allowing cold air and vermin into the school. The second was installed without a new frame, and the old, termite-eaten frame also allows drafts and pests into the building.

“For me, operations has been a monumental task for six years,” says Edwards. “When I became principal six years ago, it was not clear to me how you accessed services—because other schools seemed to be able to get lots of services, and my school got none. Over the last three years, engineers have come and gone—and it seemed like they weren’t interested in the building, so that was a perennial headache.”

Edwards turned to her region’s property advisor, Ogden Facilities Services, to train her engineering and maintenance staff to create standards for cleaning the school and to budget for supplies. Her staff established new standards but got no budget training, and a master schedule for routine and long-term maintenance never was developed. “Those were the things I asked them to do, and I thought they were reasonable,” she says.

“And our work orders,” she continues, “they were not done.” Among the jobs neglected by the property advisor was the installation of gas and water lines in two science labs. Edwards had set aside federal funds for the project—funds with an expiration date. When the work wasn’t done in time, “we lost that money,” she says.

Ogden has been fired by the School Board, and schools in Region 5 have been taken over by Compass Management, which also manages an adjoining region.

Now Edwards is looking at the board’s newest Capital Improvement Plan, which includes no major rehab work for Nicholson. “That means I won’t be getting windows,” she says. “I won’t be getting a boiler.”

Meanwhile, Nicholson’s interior is getting a paint job (except for the parts under the roof’s leaky spots). Using materials purchased with a grant from the Chicago Community Trust, neighbors and staff are contributing the labor. “I think that speaks of a great commitment,” she says. “I don’t think there’s many schools that have done that.”

Hungry for more

Brenan Elementary

Roseland

Last year’s Capital Improvement Plan called for Brenan Elementary School to get a campus park—landscaping, trees, wrought-iron fencing—but no major repairs to its two crumbling buildings.

During hearings on that plan, Principal Frank Blair pleaded for attention to the buildings. A week later, ABC News visited Brenan as part of an exposé on schoolhouses in disrepair. Not long after that, the school was added to the board’s list of must-do repair jobs.

More than a year later, Blair is happy with the work that’s been done so far, but he’s hungry for more. Brenan’s 70-year old main building has gotten major repairs—windows and tuckpointing, with roofwork to come—but a 25 year-old “temporary” building is literally coming apart at the seams. “Please,” he said at a public hearing this year, “make them fix my school.”

Meanwhile, Brenan’s main building still has a few problems—ones that could be addressed with the school’s regular maintenance funds. However, those funds were reduced for the current school year.

But Blair is more pleased than not. “This school got nothing under the old regime,” he says. “Do you hear me? Nothing. Even if they reduce my Operations and Maintenance budget, I am seeing results from the School Board’s capital plan, and I never saw that before. I have a good alderman, but my alderman was not able to get that for me.”

Drew Becher, finance manager for the Operations Department, says he’s proposing an increase in operations and maintenance funds for next year. He says the board decreased them last year because it believed that major renovation projects at many schools might reduce the work needed to keep buildings up to snuff. “But that thinking didn’t work,” he acknowledges.

Disappearing act

May Community Academy

Austin

Principal Sandra McCann is not happy that May Community Academy isn’t scheduled for major repairs; she calls the building “an eyesore to the community.”

But the kicker came in January, when money the board had already set aside for May started disappearing.

Before Christmas, May had $100,000 in “capital maintenance” funds in its account with the School Board. When McCann came back from winter vacation, $22,000 was gone. She wrote a letter to complain, only to see another $24,000 removed days later.

By mid-March, the account was down to $17,000, but she had finally gotten an explanation from then Operations Chief Ben Reyes.

Last year, board contractors did some minor repairs to correct city building code violations at May: tuckpointing on the school’s chimney, lead-paint abatement in the auditorium, etc. McCann says she had believed that costs for these mandated repairs were picked up by a central account, “But Mr. Reyes told me, no, it all came out of my capital maintenance.”

She’s still confused about why it took so long for the board to charge her school’s account for work done last summer.

Drew Becher, finance manager for the Operations Department, says that the board is simply getting its books into balance as it prepares next year’s budget. The problem, he says, was that property advisors had not always known which accounts to bill jobs to, and many capital maintenance jobs were recorded incorrectly. “Capital maintenance has been this fund that nobody knows how to invoice for,” he says, so many schools may be experiencing unexpected changes in their budget.

Last December, McCann was one of nine principals citywide to opt out of the property advisor program. “The work orders were not being fulfilled in a timely manner, nor was there competitive bidding,” she says. “Let’s be honest: you don’t have to pay $400 for a lock.”

McCann now bids out day-to-day repair work herself, using a list of pre-approved contractors provided by the School Board.

Late March brought “a ray of hope,” she says. Paul Vallas spoke at a meeting she attended; during a question-and-answer session, she asked what she’s supposed to do to get her school on the list for major repairs. “You talk to me,” Vallas said promising to get May’s situation checked out soon.