By James DeWeese
Parents have remained silent on the issue, but teachers union representative Linda Vila Passione said the conditions – at least some of which appear to stem from a leaky roof – have been a constant headache for the more than 100 teachers she represents and could pose health risks for students.
The Elmhurst school's administrators have refused to comment. But Vila Passione said the principal was cooperative and attentive to the teachers' concerns, although unable to fully address the situation because of budgetary constraints and lack of support from the Department of Education.
Meanwhile, the Department of Education agreed that the school has some problems after dispatching an investigator to the school a little more than two weeks ago. In a written statement to the TimesLedger, the DOE said custodians were addressing many of the issues including scraping and replastering water-damaged walls and placing glue traps for vermin.
But the stop-gap measures may not be enough, said Vila Passione, the United Federation of Teachers rep, who wants the three-year-old roof repaired or replaced, another exterminator sent to the school and screening installed on the windows through which pigeons are flying.
According to Vila Passione, city Department of Education documents and complaints from teachers, the problems at the school where more than 1,800 students attend kindergarten through fifth grade date back to at least 2001.
“Administration and custodial staff have been extremely helpful and have joined with the union representative to attempt to ameliorate the situations,” Vila Passione said in a letter outlining her concerns to elected officials. “However, their efforts are hindered by a lack of support and funding.”
Vila Passione said many of the carpets where children sit to read are infested with bugs. The school, she said, has purchased steam cleaners and all rugs are treated at least once a week.
In June 2003, Vila Passione submitted three separate requests to the school's administration asking it to address mold and peeling paint, mice and pigeons. All three requests were denied “based upon unavailability of money,” according to copies of the requests obtained by the TimesLedger.
Principal Casper Cacioppo did not return four phone calls to the school requesting comment. A school secretary said “he can't talk to you now. He's in a meeting. That's his answer.”
In her June 2003 work requests, Vila Passione asked the school to install studded nails on outside ledges and screens on all windows to prevent pigeons from entering the school, particularly in a fourth-floor corner room she called “Pigeon Central.”
“Pigeons continue to come in through classroom windows and attempt to nest in the ducts,” she wrote in the request. “They cause a disturbance as well as a health hazard as they defecate on furniture, books, etc.”
Vila Passione also suggested the school at 85-28 Britton Ave. be fumigated during the summer months to eliminate vermin.
“For the past week I have found mice in my garbage pail,” a teacher wrote in a March 3, 2004 letter to Vila Passione. “They are running around my room every day.” The Department of Education said an exterminator visited the school on May 28.
The teacher, whose name Vila Passione removed from the letter to protect her identity, went on to say that “mice dropping (sic) are all over the room, on the rug, under the rug, on the shelves, on the books, on the chalk ledge and on the desks.”
Mouse droppings contain mouse urinary proteins, which in elevated levels can become airborne and provoke allergic reactions in people with sensitive immune systems, according to medical studies.
At the time, Vila Passione's request for an exterminator was denied, she said. Instead, she said, glue traps were issued to teachers and the Department of Education said custodians were placing the strips used to trap rodents “throughout the building as needed.”
During a tour of the school in late May, the TimesLedger saw animal droppings that appeared to be from mice inside the broom closet of a fourth-floor classroom.
In the same set of 2003 work requests, Vila Passione also asked that the leaking roof, which had been replaced a little more than a year before, be repaired and water-damaged plaster be replaced.
In September 2003, workers stripped walls to the bare brick, put in new plaster and painted in eight classrooms that showed signs of water damage, the Department of Education said in a statement.
But the roof continues to leak, and the third and fourth floors flooded on March 31, according to an e-mail from Cacioppo to District 24 Superintendent Joseph Quinn.
“I am requesting emergency services to repair roof/drainage problems at (PS) 89,” Cacioppo wrote in a March 31 e-mail. “We had extensive flooding this morning on the third and fourth floors.”
One teacher, whose name was withheld to protect her identity, wrote a letter to Vila Passione saying she lost two rugs, works of poetry, chart tablets, tablecloths, 200 scholastic school books and 35 math text books to the flooding in her fourth-floor room.
At least one teacher on the second floor was also affected.
“Due to the water leak, my class had to leave the room first period,” a teacher on the second floor wrote in a March 31 letter to Vila Passione. “My charts I had written for my lessons had to be thrown away because of water damage.” The teacher went on to say some ceiling tiles had been damaged.
Cacioppo, the principal, instructed the custodial staff to replace the damaged tiles on April 19, according to a memo he issued.
Two weeks ago, the Department of Education dispatched an inspector to review the school's situation.
“Four of these rooms are showing signs of water penetration at this time,” a June 3 Department of Education statement said. The department said custodians would again scrape and paint the walls but did not indicate if the apparently faulty roof would be repaired or replaced.
The Department of Education did not respond to phone calls requesting further comment.
“What really made us scared is that we started to get this bubbling effect” on the walls, Vila Passione said. “It's almost like they come alive. It was like some kind of oatmeal.”
Elevated levels of moisture can create mold, which has been shown to provoke allergic reactions.
The roof that appears to be leaking is less than two years old.
In 2002 the School Construction Authority put the finishing touches on a yearlong renovation project to replace roofs and repair the building's facade.
Water had already begun filtering back into classrooms by October 2002, Vila Passione said in an Oct. 21, 2002 memo to fellow United Federation of Teachers representatives and school district officials.
The Board of Education's Division of School Facilities issued a violation March 25, 2003 for failure to maintain the building, leading to leaking conditions in rooms 412, 415, 413, 407, 329 319, 125, 126, the loading dock and the cafeteria, according to a copy of the violation.
Parents have remained largely mum on the issue at the school that serves primarily Hispanic and South Asian students.
The school's parent coordinator, Mayra Soto, said she had not heard a single complaint about the school's conditions from parents.
“The majority of our parents aren't really advocates for our students or our teachers,” Vila Passione said. “It's a cultural thing … they feel it would be an insult (to complain).”
PTA President Catarino Mondragon did not return phone calls requesting comment.
Vila Passione spoke out publicly at a health forum hosted by state Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) on May 27. Peralta later pledged to investigate.
“This is unacceptable. We need to make sure (Schools Chancellor) Joel Klein and the Department of Education fixes the problems at PS 89,” Peralta later said.
Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-Corona) also sent his community affairs liaison to take a tour of the school.
Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.