Fire-Code Violations Send 6,000 To Makeshift Classrooms in D.C.

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Thousands of District of Columbia students attended classes at alternative sites last week as several of the city's schools remained closed for fire-code violations.

A district Superior Court judge ordered 11 schools to remain closed last week as the rest of the system's schools opened. About 6,000 children attended classes in churches and at other locations. Three schools housing about 2,200 students remained closed late last week.

The school system's staggered opening marked the latest chapter in its battle of wills against Judge Kaye K. Christian, who, having found hundreds of fire-code violations in District of Columbia schools last June, refused this month to allow schools to open if they still had hazards she deemed potentially life-threatening.

The start of school had been scheduled for Sept. 7, but Superintendent Franklin L. Smith moved to postpone it three days because nearly a third of the district's 165 schools had not passed the court's muster, and district officials feared chaos would be the likely result of trying to relocate so many students.

'Fire Watches' Rejected

The superintendent's decision to delay the opening of schools came more than a week after city lawyers tried to convince the judge that nearly all of the district's serious violations had been fixed. (See Education Week, Sept. 7, 1994.)

Calling the city's claim "bald," Judge Christian asserted that many of the 1,800 violations that she had termed life-threatening were not fixed, but simply reclassified, improperly, as less hazardous. On the advice of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, a group that had filed suit to have the violations repaired, the judge ordered the district to fix an additional 800 violations.

As the opening of school approached, the judge also rejected the district's last-ditch proposal to give employees "fire watch" duty in unapproved buildings as a way of keeping them open.

Parents United had backed the measure as a way of keeping schools from being closed--a result leaders of the organization said they never intended.

"When we came up with the idea of a fire watch, it was because we saw the writing on the wall, and we saw very angry parents in our future," said Delabian L. Rice-Thurston, the executive director of Parents United.

The district's efforts to fix the violations quickly--and without an infusion of extra money--has forced it to pay large amounts for worker overtime while diverting money away from other equally pressing repairs, such as leaking roofs, Ms. Rice-Thurston said.

The failure of the 82,000-student district to open on time left many parents scrambling to find day care for their children.

City and school officials traded recriminations for the delay, with district officials complaining that the city had not provided them enough funding for school maintenance, while city officials accused the district of squandering money budgeted for repairs.

"Until the root cause of the problem--aging buildings and deferred maintenance--is addressed, fire-code violations and building-safety-code violations will continue to exist," Superintendent Smith said in a prepared statement.

Vol. 14, Issue 03

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