The Hummel Report

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Warm, Safe, and Dry?

A teacher in one Providence elementary school has been out sick for 16 days this year  - battling repeated bronchitis, after a roof leak in her classroom last August. Her school is one of many in Providence  in desperate need of repairs. This week Jim Hummel examines the General Assembly’s 2011 statewide moratorium on school construction reimbursement and how it has dramatically affected the conditions of schools in Providence.



Like many schools of its era - Harry Kirzirian Elementary off Chalkstone Avenue needs a lot more than a facelift. From the outside the school looks like it was built in 1959. But it isn’t until a visit inside that you truly appreciate the challenging conditions that teachers, staff and 600 children face every day.

Last August, just as school was beginning, heavy rains caused part of the building’s flat roof to cave in; water cascaded into Room 204. Despite efforts to replace tiles and carpeting there has been a persistent mold problem. You can see it in other parts of the building as well.

It’s been so bad that the veteran teacher in Room 204, who has been at Kizirian for a dozen years, has had to take 16 sick days this year alone to fight multiple bouts of bronchitis. Every times she’s come back respiratory problems, and exhaustion, have returned as well.

Smith: ``It has a tremendous effect on the morale and the climate and culture of a building.’’

Steve Smith is the outgoing president of the Providence Teachers Union and a former state representative. The union has filed a grievance over the conditions at Kizirian - and is fighting to have the teacher’s sick time reinstated for the days missed. Her allergist has called the teacher’s classroom a `toxic environment.’

Smith: ``There’s certainly water issues and it all starts with the roof. And when you have a problem with water it eventually finds its level then you have mold and air quality problems.’’

But it’s not just the roof in 204. This brace surrounded by scaffolding greets everyone who uses the cafeteria, which doubles as a gym. It was installed three years ago to prop up the ceiling. At first the kids thought it was meant for climbing, so officials put in padding and orange cones as a warning.

Smith: ``If someone was blindfolded and you took off the blindfold and said, where are you? You would not say…the first thing you would say would not be gymnasium.’’

DiPina: ``We have a pretty old building stock, the average age of our buildings are 58 years old.’’

Joseph DiPina took over as the Providence School Department’s Chief of Administration five months ago and has been the point man on the problems at Kizirian. He says while the School Department is addressing day-to-day problems, the city owns the school buildings and is ultimately the landlord.

We asked DiPina about the scaffolding in the cafeteria.

Hummel: ``What did you think the first time you saw it?’’

DiPina: ``It’s an eyesore - we agree, I don’t think anyone who would see that would think otherwise; it’s a band aid solution what amounts to what requires a more permanent solution.’’

Hummel: ``What is that scaffolding doing?’’

DiPina: ``That is holding up a section of the roof.’’

The permanent solution would cost half a million dollars and speaks to a larger issue of what condition schools in Providence - and across the state - are in after the General Assembly passed a school construction moratorium in 2011. It eliminated a state reimbursement making it financially attractive for local communities to invest in their facilities.

The moratorium brought most construction and renovations to an abrupt halt.

Smith: ``The first things to go in budgets, since I was a teacher, let alone union president is maintenance. And as the buildings get over the maintenance costs increase and this is a money problem. I know sometimes people don’t want to hear that. But it’s really a money problem.’’

That has been particularly true in Providence, where the oldest building is the Broad Street School, dating to 1895. The new Providence Career and Technical Academy is the crown jewel of the district, opening just before the school construction. The department also overhauled Central High next door. Then the money dried up.

That moratorium is scheduled to expire later this year and Smith says the General Assembly should be wary of extending it.

Smith: ``I think we have to look at the state construction fund, which I believe has been frozen for some time now, that was at least an avenue where the city and state could put money together. We hear often from the commissioner and from RIDE that we have to have high expectations and high standards for students; well we also have to have high expectations for the environments in which they go to learn.’’

Hummel: ``Do you think that’s been forgotten?’’

Smith: ``Yes, in Providence.’’

The Rhode Island Department of Education commissioned a study looking at the conditions of school facilities statewide. The picture is not pretty in Providence, which has 3.5 million square feet of space to maintain every year.

DiPina: ``We assist the city in identifying projects, we characterize them as warm safe and dry. Those are the most basic. That will satisfy the most basic needs of the students - that they’re in a warm facility, the boiler’s heating systems work, they’re safe they have alarm systems and security systems which function and they’re dry, meaning we try to eliminate or minimize roof leaks to prevent water damage in the school. So that where, when you talk about triage, that’s where the most pressing needs are in our schools.’’

Hummel: ``As of today are most of your schools, or all of your schools warm, safe and dry?’’

DiPina: ``I wouldn’t  say that’s an ongoing, I wouldn’t  say that as of today they’re all there - we do have some schools that have some pressing issues.’’

Warm safe and dry has been a challenge at Kizirian. A $1,500 air quality study recently completed for the district showed no mold problems, but indicated high levels of carbon dioxide in Room 204, even when no one was in the room. The teacher has reported through her union that many of her students are lethargic and often fall asleep in class. The district’s short-term solution: crack a few windows.

And she can’t move to another classroom because the building is full.

Smith: ``You have people who are dedicated - they come to work every day, the want to be in work and they want to do their job; so sometimes they accept conditions that teachers elsewhere would not.’’

Hummel: ``So you think you’ve turned the corner going forward?’’

DiPina: ``Absolutely. Absolutely.’’

Hummel: ``How do you account for the fact that the teacher in that room has continued to have issues, bronchial issues…’’

DiPina: ``I don’t know, I’m not a physician to know what her particular issues are.’’

Hummel: ``You have kids?’’

DiPina: ``Yes I do.’’

Hummel: ``Would you feel comfortable with your kids going to school at Kizirian?’’

DiPina: ``I would feel comfortable with my son going to any of the schools in Providence.’’

Hummel: ``That specific room that you looked in, where there have been high carbon dioxide levels that you have to crack the window - other remediation, if your child was in that classroom?’’

DiPina: ``Again if I knew that the school was doing its due diligence, if the district was doing its due diligence to ensure a safe community for the children there I would feel comfortable sending my child there.’’

It’s a situation, Smith says, the city can’t put off any longer.

Smith: ``This shouldn’t be looked at as pouring money into a situation. This is an investment, why we wouldn’t want to do this and do it well, because the money you’re spending and creating those environments you’re talking about where you’re going to retain the best teachers, children are going to want to be in that environment and thrive in that environment. You’re going to save costs in years to come.’’

And maybe avoid a situation like this one.

In Providence, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.