Emerson students wrote letters to BUSD maintenance chief Lew Jones asking for help. This drawing, by Oliver, shows a leaking pipe.

By Camille Baptista

Citing a failure to address significant plumbing problems at Emerson Elementary that date back years, community members pleaded with the Berkeley Unified School Board last Wednesday to ask the district to change its approach to communication as well as maintenance issues.

According to a June 4 letter from the Emerson PTA, two pipes broke last year, in a hallway and a teachers’ bathroom. Then, a few days into the 2012-13 school year, a broken faucet flooded, which led to the relocation of four classrooms of young students.

In May, a leak and water damage closed two bathrooms, one boys’ and one girls’, for more than two weeks. Concern heightened when the possibility of mold contamination arose, which “could pose potential health risks to children and staff with asthma, lung disease, or allergies,” said the PTA.

The district had hired a contractor to resolve Emerson’s water issues last September, but the PTA said the contractor failed to follow proper procedures, which led to more water damage. The district has since hired a new contractor.

Berkeley Unified Co-Superintendent Javetta Cleveland told Emerson parents and staff last week that the district has taken solid steps to address the problem, but said there is room for improvement in how the district will deal with similar problems in the future.

“We could have been more responsive as it relates to prior leaks,” Cleveland said at Wednesday’s board meeting, adding that the district is developing new protocols to handle maintenance issues better going forward.

Cleveland said the district will follow the new contractor’s progress in fixing the leaks at Emerson this summer, and will update the community frequently. A letter she sent to members of the Emerson community said the contractor plans to install new plumbing fixtures and repair damaged drywall in June.

This drawing, by a student named Rebecca, shows two downstairs bathrooms closed due to plumbing issues.
This drawing, by a student named Rebecca, shows two downstairs bathrooms closed due to plumbing issues.

In her letter, Cleveland wrote that she has requested indoor air quality testing for mold, and that the district is developing a standard protocol for cleaning up and preventing mold contamination. Until then, she said, the district is following Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

Jamie Carlson, a literature coach at Emerson, wrote in comments prepared for last Wednesday’s board meeting that much of the damage could have been prevented if the district had already had a protocol in place for responding to maintenance requests. “There isn’t enough time in the day or enough days in the school year to let one precious moment of learning be lost due to a breakdown in district policies,” Carlson wrote.

Students write to maintenance chief

Several weeks ago, Emerson students wrote letters to the school district’s maintenance director, Lew Jones, to ask for his attention to fix the bathroom issues.

“When we need to go to the bathroom we need to go all the way upstairs and wast (sic) more of our learning time,” read a May 29 letter signed “Rebecca.”

“Please help our school,” wrote another student, Anthony. “Some pepol (sic) have asthma. I do.”

Parents who attended the School Board meeting Wednesday explained how the issues have affected their own children. Emily Newman wrote, in comments prepared for the board, how her first-grade daughter’s class was relocated to the library three days after school began in September.

“I firmly believe that Erin’s introduction to first grade was negatively impacted by spending a month in a space not meant for classroom teaching,” Newman wrote.

The PTA’s letter added that, in addition to uprooting classrooms, the facilities problems eventually affected the school’s art, music and library programs because of related relocations and adjustments.

“All children, including my fourth-grader, were unable to have normal library time,” Newman wrote. (Neither Carlson or Newman ended up speaking before the board, because their comment cards were not selected, but they shared their comments with Berkeleyside as they left the meeting.)

The PTA also cited incidents from 2002 and 2009 to assert that facilities problems have plagued the school for more than 10 years.

Parent says district must do better

Tom Killilea, president of the Berkeley PTA Council, argued that the issues at Emerson represent a larger gap in communication between administrators and parents. He said that, at the school site level, daily interactions make discussions easier, but that there is a problematic gap between the district office and school communities. He dinged the district for its sluggish response to Emerson’s water leaks and said it had been “sloppy in its communications to the concerned parents, teachers, and school staff.”

Killilea said it took nine months for the district to respond to concerns from Emerson and set up a meeting with school representatives — including the PTA, teachers, union reps, the union president and the principal — to come up with a plan.

“Unfortunately, the Emerson experience is not unique and points to a larger problem with the district – haphazard communications with the school community and, for lack of a better word, poor customer service,” he said.

He asked the district to create a clear, easily accessible guide explaining whom to contact for maintenance issues; publish its protocols on the appropriate response to maintenance problems; and appoint an ombudsman to handle community concerns.

He noted that the ombudsman position “is not a new recommendation – it was last included in the ‘Parent Liaison Program Feedback’ report to the board from March 2012. It should be seriously considered by the board and the new superintendent.”

Killilea also said he hopes the district’s incoming superintendent, Donald Evans, will prioritize forums to foster better communication. Evans in the past has held “open townhall-style public meetings which allowed the community to voice issues directly to him,” said Killilea. “I hope this will become a practice in his term as BUSD superintendent and [I] offer the assistance of the Berkeley PTA Council and our constituent PTAs to make this happen.”

According to Cleveland’s letter to the Emerson community, the school district plans to establish a district-wide safety committee, with its first meeting to take place June 30, to come up with a plan and protocols to handle maintenance issues going forward.

Additional reporting was contributed to this story by Emilie Raguso.

Camille Baptista is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. She studies creative writing and human rights at Barnard in New York City, where she writes for the Columbia Daily Spectator.

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