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Toxic fumes at Cesar Chavez school text teachers' patience

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Raising a Stink

Toxic fumes at Cesar Chavez school test teachers' patience.

By Tori Marlan

Shortly after Cesar Chavez School opened, fumes began permeating the classrooms. Some students vomited; others complained of headaches, stomachaches, and dizziness. School officials soon learned the source of the problem: truck exhaust was being drawn into the school's ventilation system. The principal took a number of steps that improved the situation, but nearly three years later fumes still occasionally seep into the classrooms. Some teachers and administrators think the people who are now complaining might be blowing the problem out of proportion. Others think an effective solution has been mired in administrative sloth and bureaucratic efforts to pass the buck.

"I'm not saying we're dying of cancer or anything, but it's annoying," says John Whitfield, a Spanish teacher who's pushing the administration to eliminate the problem. "It comes and it goes. You might go a week without noticing it. Other weeks it will be two days in a row or a couple times in a day. I have to stop the lesson and open the windows and open the door until it goes away. I tell the kids if they want to go out in the hall, fine."

Chavez, which serves prekindergarten through ninth grade, opened in 1993 to ease overcrowding at nearby Seward School. It sits on a narrow slice of land near 47th and Ashland that was once a parking lot for the Goldblatt's next door. The architecture firm Ross Barney & Jankowski won six awards for the building, which cost the state $5.4 million. According to Jim Jankowski, the firm borrowed some design elements from Mexican culture, including the use of primary colors and the pyramid shape of the library, but some faculty members grumble that the architects favored design over function. "It's a nice-looking school from the outside," says science teacher Denis Roarty, "but it's not like the old days when they built solid schools. It's kind of cheap in construction. Some of the designs don't make it a real functional place. There are the intake vents--they cut corners there."

The placement of the school's two air-intake vents is at the center of the fumes controversy because the vents face an alley the school shares with several Ashland Avenue businesses. Truck drivers who use the alley for deliveries tend to leave their engines running, and the exhaust is sucked into the ventilation system. Jankowski says that placing air intakes on the sides of buildings is standard practice, and at ten feet above ground level, Chavez's comply with the city's building code.

Diesel exhaust contains carbon monoxide and lots of other potentially harmful chemicals, but whether it's hazardous to humans depends on the level and length of exposure, according to Monica Harvatin, an environmental toxicologist with the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Sandra Traback, Chavez's principal, noticed a pattern from the start. Exhaust would enter the vents and travel from the first floor to the third within a matter of minutes, but opening the windows quickly aired out the rooms. Pat Daley, who taught fourth grade, remembers that she would get light-headed and a lot of kids would throw up. She would open the windows, but once the air-conditioning went on she felt pressured to keep them closed. She says one of the building engineers would "come in raving mad" if she had them open.

Daley took the matter to the Chicago Teachers Union, which filed a grievance on behalf of the faculty members. She also wrote Traback a letter in March 1994 stating, "We feel that there have been several times when there was bad air in our classrooms and the engineering staff would not allow us to open our windows. We are suffering some symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning such as headaches, nausea, light headedness and vomiting. Since carbon monoxide poisoning can cause brain damage and death we request immediate action to remedy the situation."

Traback promptly installed carbon-monoxide detectors in the areas that generated the most complaints and brought in experts to evaluate the danger and find the source of the problem. She says city inspectors searched the school for building-code violations and EPA officials conducted air-quality tests, and all said there was no cause for alarm. Architect Jankowski found that the kitchen staff were shutting off their exhaust fans when they shouldn't, and he recommended that the school get better filters, which it did. The Board of Education also had signs posted in the alley in English and Spanish telling vehicle operators to turn off their motors while making deliveries.

"The signs cut the occurrences drastically," says Traback. But the problem didn't completely go away, because the filters didn't work as well as expected and because some truck drivers ignored the signs. So Traback asked teachers to buzz the office when they smelled exhaust, and a security guard would go out and confront the truck drivers.

Some drivers still refused to shut off their engines. "On a number of occasions," says teacher Roarty, "I've walked out there myself and pointed at a sign, and they just kind of shrug their shoulders like, 'Hey, I've got a job to do.'"

"Signs are not the solution," says Whitfield, the Spanish teacher, "especially in the winter. A truck driver, when it's cold, will have more of a tendency to leave his motor running. A lot of times batteries run down if you don't. They're always going to be pulling up in there, and there are always going to be new truck drivers. And we're going to be breathing it until something permanent is done."

In October 1994 Daley again took the matter to the union, claiming that the fumes caused "extreme discomfort." The union called on Traback and the building engineer to "investigate this matter and devise a plan to eliminate or alleviate this unsafe and unhealthy situation."

A month later Jankowski recommended relocating the vents to the roof, and the following January the Board of Education asked him to draw up specifications. In June 1995 his firm submitted its proposal, which set the cost between $30,000 and $35,000.

But the next month the new Board of Education took over, and more than a year passed without action on the proposal. "We figured the information had gotten lost or misplaced," says Jankowski, "so we re-sent it."

In the meantime, in September 1995, one of the building engineers, John Ruiz, had informed the new board that a new "air-filtration system" was needed. The board's facilities maintenance department promised in a letter to have the work done "as soon as possible."

That fall Daley took a job at another school, and the complaints from teachers pretty much stopped. Traback thought the problem had been solved.

At a faculty meeting last spring Traback asked teachers to keep their windows closed because the air-conditioning had been turned on. "I spoke up and said, 'And when the fumes enter the building?'" says Whitfield. "She said something to the effect that the matter had been taken care of. So I asked if she was saying that it had been fixed, and she answered yes. Needless to say, this pushed my button."

While on break Whitfield read up on carbon monoxide, and unaware that carbon-monoxide detectors had been installed at Chavez, he called the union and complained. A union representative went to the school to investigate.

When Whitfield, a tenured teacher, returned from vacation, he didn't have a desk or a classroom. Before he'd taught several subjects in his own fifth-grade classroom; now he had to move from room to room teaching only Spanish. He considered this a demotion and assumed it was retaliation for his complaints about the fumes.

Traback admits she's on bad terms with Whitfield, but says, "We're an overcrowded school. Space is an issue." She says three teachers at Chavez don't have their own classrooms.

Whitfield believes the political climate in the Chicago Public Schools discourages dissent. "With the new board everybody is supposed to be in bed together--the mayor, the union, the board." A former Chavez teacher, who was afraid to give his name, agrees. "Not a lot of teachers complain. They fear retaliation or losing their jobs. Nobody's really outspoken, even when it comes to problems like vents."

On December 4 the union filed a new grievance on behalf of Whitfield, claiming that the continuing exhaust fumes violate article 44-9 of the board-union agreement, which states that "teachers...shall work under safe and healthful conditions." The grievance asked the principal to "take action to prevent the fumes from entering the building."

Traback dismisses the charge that the fumes endanger the staff or the students. "We've done quite a few things to determine we're not in jeopardy," she says. "It's more a nuisance than a health problem, because it can be taken care of in seconds."

Roarty, the science teacher, agrees. "I don't see this as a huge problem, but it's disruptive, because I have to stop teaching." He says he still has faith that the problem will be solved. "Things don't move very quickly in the Chicago Public Schools, but they do move."

Last August the Board of Education's property adviser passed the matter on to Environmental Systems Design, a private consulting agency. In October Ken Gongol, a mechanical engineer for EDS, finally inspected Chavez and came up with three solutions: block off the alley during school hours, install carbon filters in the ventilation system, or move the air vents to the roof.

The first recommendation, he admits, isn't feasible, and carbon filters are "very expensive" and need to be changed at least once a year. By far the best option, he says, is moving the vents to the roof.

After Whitfield went to the union, Traback surveyed the faculty about the fumes. She says the results didn't support the notion that the problem was "overwhelming," but she's still considering the issue. "I don't want to take any chances," she says. And ultimately the decision about what to do will rest with her.

Currently, says Board of Education chief operating officer Benjamin Reyes, the board's law department is investigating to see if the architects made an "error in design." If the board determines it has no grounds to sue the architects, funds for relocating the vents would have to come from the school's budget, which now has reserves of about $63,000.

"Something should be done about it already," says one teacher who wishes to remain anonymous. "The board uses the slogan 'Children First,' which seems kind of ironic. If they really believed that, they would stop the trucks or put in a new system."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Whitfield photo by Randy Tunnell.

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