Friday, January 10, 1997
Schools can't afford risk
hazards create

The Cincinnati Enquirer

''We can't afford to do everything.''

Welcome to the words of Steve Ottemann. He's the $106,714-a-year vice president of Cincinnati Public Schools.

Mr. Ottemann used those words to excuse the inexcusable.

This was his explanation for how the Cincinnati Fire Division came to find more than 2,500 safety violations in the classrooms, auditoriums, hallways, stairwells and doorways of the system's buildings.

These buildings are not abandoned warehouses.

They are schools.

And they are actively engaged in educating 50,000 children in this city.

Students and teachers live and work in these buildings. They walk their halls and sit in their classrooms for hours on end, five days a week, nine months a year.

And they're going to school in buildings that are unsafe at any grade.

No lie

Still, what Mr. Ottemann said is true. The school system doesn't have the resources to fix all of its ills. Its buildings are old - the average age for its 79 schools is 53 years. They need $300 million to $600 million in major repairs.

And those are just the brick-and-mortar repairs. The district's high dropout rate and low test scores need to be fixed, too. With a crisis du jour, too much gets done on a make-do basis.

No wonder, as Mr. Ottemann said, ''We can't afford to do everything.''

So true.

But those words would offer small solace to a grieving mother whose child just died in a school fire because the light on an exit sign was defective or a fire extinguisher was missing from the lunchroom.

Both problems are on the list of violations at Porter Middle School. That building has the most violations in the system, with 73.

Like the vast majority of the other schools' safety hazards, these are small-ticket items. It doesn't cost a fortune to fix a sign, replace a fire extinguisher or reattach the cover of an electrical outlet.

Advance knowledge

Mr. Ottemann says the district is aware of these problems. And he's glad the fire department conducted its inspection. This, he notes, will help prioritize the school system's needs.

Whoa. Time out.

I always thought school safety was a given, not a priority.

Goals for helping kids stay in school, learn more and make something of themselves are priorities. Safety is an automatic.

When you go to school, the fire extinguishers are always in place. And ready to work if needed. They don't have to be tested and mounted on the wall like the one in Room 124 of Gamble Middle School.

Exits are clearly marked. Doors are open. They're not chained like some doors in Queen City Vocational Center next to Taft High School.

These amenities should be as automatic as going to school and having a roof over your head. Although, considering all the crumbling ceiling plaster I've seen on the floors of the Cincinnati Public Schools I've been in over the past two years, that's a stretch, too.

The school system has put a $4 million price tag on repairing the 2,500-plus safety violations. Cincinnati Public claims it doesn't have the money to fix everything.

When it comes to students and their safety, this system is strapped for cash.

But it somehow manages to hand out raises at the central office.

Just this week, Superintendent J. Michael Brandt received a 5 percent pay hike. That raises his salary to $129,591 a year.

That's low for the head of a school district this size. But 5 percent is still 5 percent.

So when Steve Ottemann says, ''We can't afford to do everything,'' he's not lying. Cincinnati Public Schools knows it has a finite amount of funds. So it must decide where to spend them. On salaries? Or safety? You know the answer.

The trouble with this decision is there's something else they can't afford:

The sight of a firetruck pulling up in front of a school. The building's in flames.

And there are kids inside.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.