Thursday, January 29, 2009

Connecticut school district refuses to fix ADA violations

From Journal Enquirer:

ENFIELD, Conn — Calling a state report that cited Fermi High School for numerous violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act “another unfunded mandate,” Board of Education members said Tuesday that they couldn’t support a proposal to hire an architect to design fixes for the problems.

Superintendent of Schools John Gallacher had asked the board to approve spending $10,000 to $15,000 on an architect to devise a compliance plan for the school.

But board Chairman Andre V. Greco began the discussion Tuesday night by saying the school system doesn’t have the money for such a project.

“This is millions of dollars to bring a 40-year-old school into compliance,” Greco said. “I can’t support it and won’t. We don’t have $10,000.”

Board member Judith Apruzzese-Desroches agreed with Greco’s assessment that the recommendations by the state Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights represent an “unfunded mandate” on the school system.

Gallacher said the school system can address some issues identified in the report, such as lack of paint identifying handicapped parking spaces, and will do so. But he said many other changes called for in the report would require “a lot of construction.”

Board member Greg Stokes said the school system should have the town attorney review the report to see whether it will have to comply.

But board member Tom Arnone expressed concern that, because the school system now knows about the violations at Fermi, it could face legal liability.

“I don’t think we can just ignore this,” he said. “If we were a private industry, we’d face fines. I’m not sure this falls into an unfunded mandate.”

State officials found the violations during a series of visits to the school in October and November 2007.

Violations include narrow doorways, a lack of fire alarms in some classrooms, unmarked passenger loading areas, bathrooms that aren’t accessible to the handicapped, sinks and drinking fountains that disabled people can’t use, lack of accessible seating for certain sporting events, and main entrance doors that disabled people can’t operate.

The state officials said in the report that the school can be brought into compliance “by means of redesign of equipment, reassignment of classes or other services to accessible buildings, assignment of aides to beneficiaries, home visits … alteration of existing facilities and construction of new facilities … or any other methods that result in making its programs or activities accessible to handicapped person(s).”

The state’s review of Fermi, which was built in 1971, is part of a random inspection process conducted each year throughout the state to determine compliance with accessibility and other non-discrimination requirements.

The school system must report back to the state by Feb. 9 with a plan to fix the violations.

“I can say that we plan to address some items that we can do with our own maintenance and explain the financial situation,” Gallacher told the board. “We can say we won’t do the rest and see what the state says.”

Gallacher cautioned the board that the violations found at Fermi relate to a federal law. If the government “wanted to play hardball,” he said, it could freeze federal funding for the town’s schools.