More School Safety Issues
Criticism of schools supervisor intensifies
By Mary Shanklin and Leslie Postal | Sentinel Staff Writers
Posted April 27, 2003
As the Orange County School District came under fire last week for safety conditions at many schools, the man in charge was nowhere in sight.
In closed-door meetings with staff members, Superintendent Ron Blocker addressed the controversy at arm's length. Security and safety employees went on the front lines to answer questions about hundreds of fire-code violations, while Blocker limited his response to two statements that schools were safe.
Orange County fire inspectors reported that the schools had failed to act on 107 potentially life-threatening violations so serious that the fire marshal said he would recommend closing any areas where safety problems were not corrected.
The superintendent's staff responded by releasing the results of the district's own inspections and announcing that $2.5 million would be spent on repairs this year alone. Building officials explained that the district fell victim to new safety codes. The security chief said the district was trying to prioritize repairs.
Meanwhile, the superintendent made no public comments.
By mid-afternoon Friday, he said he would answer only two questions. "You guys have bombarded us enough all week, and now I'm going to spend some time with my family," Blocker said by phone.
The superintendent's lack of communication brought criticism from community leaders and even School Board members.
"Somebody has to be in charge, and no one is right now," said political consultant Dick Batchelor, who led Orange County's successful $2 billion school-construction referendum last year. "Whoever is giving the superintendent advice not to comment on these life-safety issues is not giving him good advice."
School Board members complained that Blocker has kept them in the dark.
Tim Shea, newly elected in November, said he was upset to learn about ongoing problems with school fire inspections and particularly was upset to learn about them from the media and not the superintendent's staff.
Shea said he didn't receive a copy of the fire marshal's April 4 letter until this week's news reports prompted him to request it.
"I don't like it. I'm angry. And I intend to ask some hard questions," Shea said. "I don't have enough information at this point in time."
Board Chairman Rick Roach said he wants to hear at Tuesday's board meeting that the superintendent's staff has a plan to address the issues raised by the fire marshal.
"We're the final line of defense," Roach said. "If the superintendent is not on top of this, then the board will get on top of this."
Like his colleagues, Roach said Blocker didn't tell him about the fire marshal's letter until this week, but he said Blocker told him that was because he thought the district was working with the Fire Department to fix the problems.
"I have some questions about why we could find out at this point," Roach said. He added, "I think we've got to give our guy the benefit of the doubt."
Elsewhere in Florida, mishandled fire-code violations have cost at least one superintendent his job.
Three years ago in Lee County, on the state's southwest coast, fire officials found hazardous conditions at 60 of the county's 68 schools. Problems ranged from outdated fire extinguishers to schools with no fire-notification system.
Wayne Blanton, director of the Florida School Boards Association, recalled that the district assured fire officials that empty fire extinguishers had been filled. When the inspectors went back to check, the extinguishers still were empty.
The Lee County School Board was prepared to fire Superintendent Bruce Harter strictly because of the district's bad track record addressing fire hazards, district spokesman John Dattola said. Before they could terminate Harter's contract, the superintendent was hired to oversee a school district in Virginia.
"I can tell you, when the issue is safety of the kids, the administration of Orange County could learn a lesson from Lee County," Dattola said. "They should respond to fire-safety violations quickly."
Blocker's low-profile approach to the public-safety dispute comes at a time when state legislators are considering a bill intended to make districts more accountable.
The sponsor, Rep. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, wants to give voters the option of deciding whether they would like a countywide-elected school-board chairman. Under the present system, seven school board members elected from individual districts vote among themselves every year for a new chairman.
If voters chose the new leadership role by referendum, they would have a focus for their frustrations when they didn't like the way schools were operating. The Orange County fire-safety controversy, Gardiner said, "is the type of thing [where] voters will say, 'Well, who can we hold responsible?'"
Orange County Chairman Rich Crotty said last week's events show why such a bill is needed.
"I don't know how I could be Orange County chairman and not be in favor of it. It works in Orange County, and in municipalities where it's in place it works. The chief elected official would be accountable to voters," Crotty said. "The events of the last few days probably bring that into closer focus."
School districts around the state oppose Gardiner'smeasure, however. Orange County school lobbyists Sarah Sprinkel and John Thrasher, a former speaker of the House, have argued against the legislation.
"I made a couple of contacts on it," said Thrasher, who was hired by Blocker at a $1,000 monthly retainer to monitor a number of school-related issues. The superintendent said he did not direct Thrasher to focus on Gardiner's bill.
Because of the widespread school-board opposition, Thrasher said the bill was probably dead.
Gardiner said the bill has made it through House committees. If it does not make it through the Senate on its own, he said that he may add it to another bill. If that fails, he said he would bring it back next year.
Mark Schlueb and Bob Mahlburg of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Mary Shanklin can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5538. Leslie Postal can be reached at 407-772-8046 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Schools receive accolades
Fire marshal praises schools for code fixes
By Leslie Postal | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted August 16, 2003
The correction of more than 200 serious fire-code violations at schools won the Orange County school district praise Friday from Florida's top fire-safety official and an end to state monitoring of the situation.
State Fire Marshal Tom Gallagher said his office was impressed with the district's progress in eliminating hazards and was confident that remaining work would be completed by early next year.
"We're very happy," said Gallagher, after touring Gotha Middle School with school administrators. "These schools have been brought up to where they belong. They're totally safe for students."
All of the most serious violations cited by fire inspectors this spring -- the so-called "A list" -- have been fixed, Gallagher said.
"It's our goal not to be back," he added.
The serious violations at nearly 80 schools included windows that didn't open, problems with kitchen appliances, missing fire alarms and blocked emergency exits.
At Gotha, cited for five violations, workers had to add a door to a room without enough exits, re-hang doors so they swing out -- not into -- rooms and remove a built-in counter that blocked access to an emergency exit window.
Gallagher's office started inspecting county schools in late April after the local fire marshal grew frustrated that the district, despite repeated warnings, had failed to repair numerous fire-code violations found in county schools.
The situation reached a critical juncture when Orange County fire officials threatened to get schools closed if the problems weren't corrected.
In May, Gallagher stepped in and ordered "fire watchers" to patrol the halls of some schools until the violations could be repaired.
He also ordered the district to move quickly to correct the violations.
Fire watchers continue to patrol 19 schools because of serious violations found since the state stepped in, officials said.
Friday Superintendent Ron Blocker and Orange County Fire Chief Carl Plaugher said Gallagher's office had helped improve the relationship between their agencies.
They said they expected that future problems -- all-but-guaranteed in a district with some 150 schools -- would be resolved more quickly than those in the past year.
Plaugher said he was happy with the "remarkable" progress school officials made correcting problems this summer.
"The undertaking was just huge, and they stepped up to the plate," he said. "Have the major issues been fixed? You're darn right."
Less-serious violations -- the so-called "B list" -- must be corrected by Jan. 31.
Those violations wouldn't prevent students and staff from fleeing a burning building but could make it difficult for the fire department to stop a fire quickly, Gallagher said.
Those violations include limited access to fire hydrants on some campuses and portable classrooms placed too close together.
Blocker said his staff was committed to fixing all fire-code problems.
"We will continue this," he said.
Leslie Postal can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5273.