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Sanitation grades low at some Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools

Limited budgets mean dirty fountains, dusty vents, mold don't get needed attention.

By Gavin Off
goff@charlotteobserver.com

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After nearly four hours of roaming the halls, classrooms and bathrooms of West Charlotte High School, a county health department inspector drew up a report that looked more like a struggling student's final exam.

Toilet facilities: Minus 6.5.

Drinking fountains: Minus 4.0.

Lighting and ventilation: Minus 4.0.

Dressing rooms and showers: Minus 3.5.

Total score: 70.5 out of 100 - one of the lowest sanitation scores any Charlotte-Mecklenburg school has received in the past five years.

"(I) observed all shower floors, walls and ceilings collecting residue, discoloration, mold and damage," wrote the Mecklenburg County Health Department inspector in the May 5 report. "Repeat, non-compliance."

Built in 1954, West Charlotte High is one of six CMS schools that averaged a C grade on sanitation inspections since 2007. South Mecklenburg, Vance, Olympic, Independence and Hopewell also averaged a C.

That's the lowest grade a school can receive before becoming unapproved, said Ed Norman, who oversees children's environmental health for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Dennis Salmen, environmental manager for the county health department, said the unapproved designation carries no mandatory consequences.

Health department officials said low sanitation scores for buildings do not mean a school is unsafe. They said that school cafeterias, where uncooked foods can breed bacteria, are held to tougher inspection standards.

During the first five months of 2011, eight CMS schools recorded a C on health department building sanitation inspections. About 80 recorded an A, data show.

Mitzi Porter, president of the Parent Teacher Association at West Charlotte, said district officials often slight urban schools.

"Clearly, the conditions at our school are drastically different from the conditions at other schools," Porter said. "They don't value our children, and they don't value our children's education."

County sanitation inspectors provide a copy of their annual findings to the school and CMS, but that's usually as far as their powers stretch.

Health department officials cannot fine or suspend a dirty school and can only close a school if there is a public health hazard or nuisance.

Otherwise, department officials merely notify a school of the problems and rely on it to make the corrections, Salmen said.

That's because schools, like jails and hospitals, do not receive operating permits from the health department.

Some health officials are frustrated over the inspection program's powerlessness.

"It's not a sanitation program that all health departments take as serious as other programs because literally they have no authority," Norman said.

Funding woes hurt

During the first five months of 2011, inspectors noted more than 160 repeat violations at CMS schools.

Violations ranged from water-damaged ceiling tiles and dusty vents to missing soaps and sanitizers.

"I cannot tell you why these issues have not been addressed," Salmen said. "This isn't rocket science."

Three years ago, when her son was a freshman, Porter photographed some of West Charlotte's building problems, including damaged bleachers, dirty bathrooms and chipped paint. Porter showed the photographs to the school board.

"Since that time I have not seen any improvements," she said.

CMS: Custodial staff cut

Aging schools and a custodian shortage might be one reason for the poor grades, CMS officials said.

Since 2008, CMS has cut its custodian staff from 809 to about 670 to cover roughly 160 schools, a decrease of 17 percent. The number of trade workers, such as plumbers and electricians, decreased from 226 to 190, CMS reports show.

Guy Chamberlain, associate superintendent for auxiliary services at CMS, said the cutbacks have stopped the district from performing preventative maintenance on noncritical items.

For example, the district no longer refinishes school floors annually or paints each school's interior every seven years.

"A lot of preventative maintenance is checking things, lubricating things, visually examining things," he said. "We don't do much of that. For the most part it's breakdown maintenance."

Chamberlain said the district's maintenance and repair backlog totals $132 million. About $12 million to $16 million a year goes toward maintenance projects.

With efforts to minimize budget cuts on the classroom, Chamberlain said he wasn't optimistic about reducing the backlog next year.

The inspection of West Charlotte in May was littered with violations that could have been prevented.

The inspector noted damaged baseboards, bathroom stalls and ceilings as well as loose toilet seats and stained sinks, the report shows.

West Charlotte's principal, Shelton Jefferies, declined to comment.

School sanitation rules have not been updated since 1990. Last year, after three years of stakeholder meetings, officials at the state Division of Environmental Health prepared to submit an overhaul of the sanitation regulations for rulemaking.

Rule update blocked

But it never happened after an executive order by Gov. Bev Perdue restricted new state rules.

New amendments would have required schools to post their inspection grade at a conspicuous location. They also would have addressed sanitation issues associated with treatment rooms, unlicensed school-based child-care programs, feeding tubes and asthma triggers, such as moisture control.

"These air quality controls are more important now than in the past because more and more schoolchildren have asthma," the proposed rule read.

In 2008, American students missed 10.5 million school days because of asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2007-08, an estimated 93,400 school-age kids in North Carolina had asthma, the state reported.

Salmen said he could not remember an excessive mold outbreak at a CMS school.

But mold can be difficult to quantify. What's tolerable for one student might be intolerable to another. Unlike lead and other heavy metals, mold has no national standard for what is unsafe, Salmen said.

Until the federal government adopts a standard, it's unlikely school districts will regulate mold.

Jim Brady, executive director of America's Schoolhouse Council, a group of educational designers and planners, called unresolved sanitation issues a burden. Left unfixed, they multiply and eventually could disrupt a student's education

"If they miss school, they aren't learning, and if they don't feel good, they aren't learning," Brady said.

Off: 704-358-6038
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