Frigid temps heat up friction at Gary Roosevelt
By Carole Carlson firstname.lastname@example.org/302-0949 January 28, 2014 11:00PM
Building & Maintenance Supervisor Charles Prewitt explains the issued with the heating coils and burst pipes to Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Pruitt at Roosevelt High School on January 28, 2014. | Jim Karczewski\for Sun-Times media
Updated: March 3, 2014 2:44PM
GARY — The boiler room floor at the Roosevelt College and Career Academy held about 2 inches of water Wednesday afternoon as the tug of war over who’s responsible for such calamities continued between EdisonLearning Inc. and Gary Community School Corp.
Burst pipes throughout the building have haunted Roosevelt since last year, but it’s gotten worse during this frigid January, disrupting classes and causing costly repairs.
The latest came Friday, as frozen pipes burst, flooding the school’s concession area and raining water down on legendary athletic team photos, including Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson’s basketball squad.
Other pipes over heating vents in exterior walls have burst, leading to classroom flooding. On Tuesday, the building had no heat and its prospects of opening on Wednesday, with the rest of Gary’s schools, were still in doubt.
Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt has been at Roosevelt every day since Saturday, getting a first-hand look at the damage throughout the aging-badly building.
“I tried to get them to come Saturday,” Pruitt said of EdisonLearning officials who operate the school under a state takeover contract. “We have to have better oversight. Our whole staff is here, we have 17 other buildings and we don’t have capital projects money.”
EdisonLearning began running Roosevelt last year after the State Board of Education approved its four-year contract. The state tapped the private, for-profit education management company for Roosevelt after six straight years of anemically low test scores. About 600 students attend the grades 7-12 school.
After being ordered by a Marion County judge last year to forge a shared services agreement, it took the two sides nearly a year to complete the agreement. Even though the State Board of Education monitored the progress of the talks, they dragged on for months. Finally, EdisonLearning signed the agreement in December and Gary district officials signed it Jan. 15.
The lengthy agreement essentially deems the school district as the building’s landlord, holding it responsible for major repairs and to maintain the building just like the other schools it runs.
“The money we were provided is for academic purposes, not for the operation of the building,” said Michael Serpe, spokesman for EdisonLearning. “If you rent a home and the heat doesn’t work, you contact the landlord.”
He said the school district must respond to work orders within 24 hours and it’s obligated to maintain sump pumps in the building and to repair leaks.
It sounds like a simplistic solution, but maybe not in a massive building that opened when Calvin Coolidge was in the White House and Thomas Edison was still pondering his next invention.
Roosevelt, like many other aging Gary schools, has not grown old gracefully. While its alumni still hold it in fervent regard, Gary’s first school built to segregate blacks from whites has had more than its share of benign neglect like the wall on the building’s west addition that collapsed in 2000 from structural defects.
Custodian Wendell Brown kept watch over the school’s boiler room nuances for 14 years. Now, the district sends him when disaster strikes. On Tuesday, Brown said the boiler room was in the worst condition he’s ever seen.
“If the building is monitored properly, we could stop these problems but we have to get to them earlier,” said Charles Prewitt, Gary’s director of building, grounds and maintenance. Prewitt said in subzero weather, he has custodians check unoccupied buildings three times a day. But Prewitt believes it’s EdisonLearning’s job to monitor Roosevelt, not his staff’s.
Prewitt said maintenance problems have been compounded by a lack of access to the building. He said EdisonLearning changed the locks and provided a swipe card for only one door.
“I’ve never heard of a landlord not being allowed in their building,” he said. “For 75 years, we never had these kinds of issues.”
EdisonLearning said it’s unusual for them, too.
“There always seem to be reasons that things don’t get fixed at Roosevelt when they get fixed everywhere else,” Serpe said. “The only people this is doing a disservice to are students.” Serpe said EdisonLearning has never had to wage war over maintenance issues in its 25 years of running schools.
“The children can’t learn when the school isn’t open,” he said.