The Little School That's Falling Down — and the State's Bigger Problem

Jim Louvau

The preschool at the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf is falling down.

Not today, not tomorrow, but it’s apparent that someday, termites will plow the rest of the way through the trusses that hold up the ceiling of the shabby little building on the far southwestern corner of the campus near 19th and Northern Avenues in Phoenix.

Phoenix Day School for the Deaf is a Title 1 school; just about every kid is eligible for the free and reduced lunch program, an official says.

For the past two years, officials at the Arizona Schools for the Deaf and Blind — the state agency charged with educating hearing- and sight-impaired children in Arizona — have submitted capital requests to the Legislature, begging for a new building, explaining that exterminators have not been able to save it.

After hearing complaints about moldy smells, failing air-conditioning units, concerns about asbestos, and extensive termite damage in PDSD buildings, Phoenix New Times filed a public records request on August 1 asking for correspondence related to such concerns at the Arizona Schools for the Deaf and Blind’s facilities.

The request has still only been partially fulfilled, but thus far it has revealed reports of possible mold and multiple repairs on A/C units as well as a strongly worded request for a new building for the school’s youngest students.

“At this time due to its age and termite issues we are experiencing a safety concern for the structure and health of the building. Due to the limited space on campus we are unable to relocate students and staff in this building,” school officials wrote in a request to the Legislature for $1.2 million for a new preschool building in both FY 2018 and FY 2019 capital-improvement plan requests.

In fact, students and staff were still using the building when New Times toured it in late September, weeks after the new school year had started and well over a year since the request was first made.

Ryan Ducharme, chief agency relations officer for the Arizona Schools for the Deaf and Blind, told New Times at the beginning of August that he had no knowledge of any building issues at the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf, including termite damage. Weeks later, in the letter that accompanied the partial records-request fulfillment, Ducharme added a clarification to the agency's request for a new pre-school building:

“As one would expect, when asking for funding, evocative language is often used to make a strong case for why such a large expenditure is needed. The person making the request was not a structural engineer nor qualified to make an expert assessment on the condition of the building," he wrote.

Ducharme also provided a report from a structural engineer, dated September 11, explaining that while “the extent of the damage is unknown at this time … there are no signs that the trusses have failed or sagged due to the termite damage.”

Yet. The engineers did warn against allowing several workers on the roof at once.

Turns out, the termite problem at PDSD has revealed a much larger statewide concern.

The state School Facilities Board is charged with inspecting all public school buildings every five years, and conducting spot investigations of some buildings every 30 months. But the schools for deaf and blind children are not subject to those inspections. Instead, because these buildings are owned by the state, the Department of Administration is charged by law with inspecting them — and all of the state’s approximately 4,000 buildings — every four years.

But Megan Rose, spokeswoman for the Department of Administration, says that her agency stopped conducting those inspections in 2009, when the economy crashed.

And DOA can’t find evidence of the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf ever having been inspected. Or, for that matter, pretty much any other building owned by the state.

In an email, Rose wrote, “As I mentioned on the phone, we stopped doing quadrennial inspections under the previous administration (back in 2009) because of budget cuts and staff cuts. Unfortunately, around the same time that we had to reduce staff, the hard and soft copies of the quadrennial reports disappeared. After a thorough search, the documents were not located. Staff turnover since '09 further complicates historical knowledge of their retention.”

She added that a few inspections (239) have been completed since 2013.

Two weeks after New Times filed its public records request, the Department of Administration conducted a quadrennial inspection of the campus of the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf.

Rose says she will provide the final copy; the report now is in draft form.

Pulling up to the front of the campus of the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf, you’d never guess there’s an issue with building quality. The angular, dark gray buildings of the new high school and administrative complex that front 19th Avenue were completed in 2007, said Terry Pritchard, who has overseen building operations at PDSD. The high school is a nice, modern facility that includes spotlights and specially designed windows meant to keep a glare off students and teachers as they sign.

The modest one-story elementary school buildings behind the high school were built in the early 1970s. But Pritchard’s not sure how old the TCTC (which stands for Totally Committed to Children) structure is. He believes it once housed an old Mary Moppet’s childcare center somewhere in the Valley; he says he thinks some parents paid for the structure to be relocated to the PDSD campus.

Pretty mosaic tiles line the entrance to the TCTC building. Inside, the carpet is worn and taped in places. The termite damage is visible on the popcorn ceiling in at least one classroom.

Sources told New Times that in the past several years, air-conditioning units have broken repeatedly, and that they have sometimes had to teach in a room where the thermostat registers 90 degrees.

During New Times’ tour in September, an elementary school teacher commented on a moldy smell in her classroom; Pritchard assured her he’d take care of it immediately. Records show she complained many months ago about the same thing.

She seemed almost apologetic when she acknowledged that other staff members keep telling her her room – carefully decorated in bright colors, with tissue-paper banners and other sweet touches — smells moldy.

“Me is one thing, but my kids is a whole other thing,” she says.

Again, it’s tough to know just what’s going on because of poor record keeping.

In the same email where the agency tries to backpedal on whether there’s a safety concern about the pre-school building, Ducharme acknowledges that record keeping of maintenance work has not been so great.

“…despite best efforts, maintenance workers who complete and close out work order tickets are not always thorough in detailing all findings/all actions taken nor are they always consistent with closing out tickets promptly when work is performed. Their work is, however, followed up and inspected by facilities management to ensure facilities are safe, clean and well-maintained.”

When asked to comment on the records released by the Arizona Schools for the Deaf and Blind, Dr. Mark Syms, who chairs the board, responded by email:

“Staff at ASDB continuously seek ways to improve operations and systems of support to students, and appreciate the opportunity to further review and strengthen these systems. ASDB puts the well-being of its students and staff first.”