A group of first-grade parents at Washington Elementary School have been pressuring the district to close two bathrooms located in a “portable” building, which is accessible from the street, but invisible to teachers. They want new bathrooms built inside the classrooms.
“Anybody on the street could walk into those bathrooms and use them and go into them when the children are in them,” said Pamela Springer, one of the parents.
The district has already put out bids for a contractor to renovate and clean the existing bathrooms – a task another parent demanded. But Superintendent Michelle Lawrence said Wednesday that the question of their location offered no easy solution.
“It is so incredibly crowded, so it’s not an easy issue of our just bringing in another portable and setting it someplace,” said Lawrence. “Relocating (the bathrooms) becomes a much more difficult issue.”
The two bathrooms face McKinley Street, which is blocked off to traffic but easily accessible to the public. A five-foot-tall chain-link fence separates the building from the sidewalk, but a gate is open to the street 20 feet away.
Rita Kimble, the school principal, said she installed that chain-link fence two years ago, when she began working at Washington. Parents had expressed concern at the time.
“The way it was configured was to deter anybody from going into the bathrooms,” she said.
On Wednesday afternoon, several first- and second-grade students bounded around the building in their Halloween costumes to use the bathrooms and lingered afterwards for a few moments on the stairs up to the doors, watching the sunny street.
“It’s totally ridiculous,” said Linda Navidad Franco, who stood outside the portable structure. “(The kids) come along all the time, and we understand that the teachers can’t be with them all the time.”
She said she told her daughter, a second-grader, never to use those bathrooms.
“I tell her to hold it for when they go for recess or lunch,” Franco said.
The parents started writing letters to Kimble, the first-grade teacher, Avis Minger and district administrators soon after the school year began. Aside from decrying the bathroom location, they also described the conditions inside the bathrooms in terms reminiscent of an underdeveloped country.
“In the girls’ bathroom a door on one of the stalls in entirely missing, while in the other a long strip of rusted metal hangs off the stall door,” the parents wrote to Kimble.
They cited flooding, lack of soap and paper, peeling paint, and faucets so tight that girls have had to ask boys to come in and help operate them.
The bathrooms, they wrote, are “an accident waiting to happen.”
“The health considerations are serious,” they wrote in another letter to Minger, “especially since first-grade children are still learning to wash after toileting.”
In a letter responding to the parents, dated Sept. 11, Kimble wrote that she asked the maintenance department to “upgrade” the bathrooms last spring. She noted that flooring and painting work had already been initiated and said coded locks would be placed on the bathroom doors.
“Children will be able to learn a simple code to enter,” Kimble wrote. “This will prevent anyone else from entering them.”
Kimble also said she would ask teachers to take their classes to the bathroom as a group. But in a Sept. 5 letter, the begrudged parents said this idea “seemed impractical and impossible.”
Kimble said on Thursday that the first-grade teacher was carrying-out this instruction.
“One of the improvements (is) that actually the first graders are not going to the restrooms as frequently as they did,” said Kimble.
Lew Jones, who has led the district’s maintenance department since last month’s departure of maintenance director Gene Le Fevre, said a bidding process was underway to hire a contractor to improve the existing bathrooms by painting and replacing the floors, doing minor carpentry, and perhaps, some plumbing.
Jones estimated about $12,000 would be spent, but would not estimate how long the work would take.
“I don’t think it’s that long a duration of a project,” he said.
Franco, the second-grader’s parent, echoed many parents’ opinions on Wednesday.
“What’s the point of fixing them when they’re still accessible to everybody?” she said.
The bungalows were placed in their current location in 1995 as part of a two-year schoolwide renovation and seismic retrofit, said Stephanie Allen, who headed the school’s site committee during that period. The bathrooms were added within a year to handle the expanded school population, she said.
“There is not any other place to put those bathrooms in terms of hookups, and they have to have bathrooms for the kids and staff,” Allen said.
“These are the kinds of problems (you find) when you’re housing students and staff in portables.”