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LeConte safety hazard concerns mount

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Friday December 14, 2001

Dangerous playground equipment, exposed piping and moldy bathroom floors are just a few of the safety hazards at LeConte School that parents and principal Patricia Saddler have been urging the district to fix for months. 

“The building looks terrible,” said Martha Cain, co-chair of the LeConte Parent-Teacher Association, one of several parents who signed a Nov. 9 letter to Superintendent Michele Lawrence laying out maintenance concerns. 

Cain said the district has not responded to the letter.  

“We haven’t heard from them,” she said. “There’s been no response.” 

Saddler said her official requests for school repairs have gone unanswered as well. “I’ve done my part,” she said. “I’ve notified the district and put the maintenance requests into the system.” 

Lew Jones, manager of facilities planning for the school district, said the repair delays are the result of short staffing in the maintenance department, and lengthy bureaucratic processes that cannot be avoided. 

Many of the parents’ concerns, for instance, focus on items in the school playground – a faulty swingset, a boarded-up wooden play structure and a pipe, covered with a porous metal crate, that attracts kids. 

This year’s budget includes a $400,000 allotment for playground upgrades. In order to make proper improvements at LeConte and at other schools, Jones said, the district must go through the lengthy process of hiring a consultant to make playground recommendations, packaging together significant repairs and replacements, and seeking bids on the work. 

On Nov. 14, the Board of Education authorized the district to spend up to $50,000 to hire Moore, Iacofano, Goltsman, a Berkeley consulting firm, to review the playgrounds and make recommendations. The district has not yet finalized the contract with MIG, Jones said. 

Brad Lord, parent of a kindergartner at LeConte, said he is encouraged that the district is pursuing larger playground repairs. But, he said the system must do a better job of basic maintenance in the meantime. 

“Neglect of the grounds allows for the continuing deterioration of the grounds,” Lord said, “and that lends itself to abuse.” 

Jones said some of the upkeep is the responsibility of LeConte’s custodial staff, and not the district’s maintenance department.  

For instance, parents and staff have argued that the bathroom floors were not properly sealed during school renovations in 1999 and 2000, leading to dampness and mold. Jones said the school’s custodial staff can do the resealing if the district provides the necessary sealant. 

Other repairs, such as the proper handling of exposed pipes in the school yard and one of LeConte’s hallways, are the responsibility of the maintenance staff and will be addressed, Jones said. 

Parents say that the appearance of the school grounds is almost as important as safety. Cain, the PTA co-chair, who is also a teacher at Longfellow, said the district must maintain its schools properly if it hopes to attract families which have fled to private schools. 

“LeConte looks crummy,” she said, “and that’s your first impression of the school.” 

Cain said the appearance is unfortunate, because the school is actually on the upswing, with strong leadership, a conversion to magnet school status this year and the recent introduction of a dual language immersion program that places English- and Spanish-speaking students in the same classroom. 

A major reason for maintenance shortcomings at LeConte and elsewhere, said Jones and members of the district’s Maintenance Planning and Oversight Committee, is under-staffing. 

The addition of new maintenance workers has been a controversial subject this year. For months, parents on the maintenance committee have called for the immediate hiring of more staff, but Jones has warned that the recruitment and selection process will take some time. 

Parents and district officials have also sparred over the types of maintenance workers to be hired, with the district moving to hire “maintenance engineers,” skilled in several trades, while committee members argue that multi-skilled workers are too expensive, and difficult to find.  

In the end, the schools will hire about 15 new staff members over the next six months, according to Jones, some sooner than others.