Some of the photos accompanying this column make me wonder if Fresno Unified will ever get its act together.


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Portrait of GV Wire News Director Bill McEwen

Bill McEwen

Opinion

As you can see, the conditions in this special education storage room and teachers’ office at Figarden Elementary School are appalling. Rat feces and urine are in the room. Weird stuff, possibly mold, is on the walls — likely the result of a leaking air-conditioning unit. And equipment, much of it outdated, is crammed and stacked in a manner that would give the fire marshal a heart attack.

Three traveling teachers — all orthopedic impairment specialists — work in this room. If you’re thinking, thank goodness the students aren’t in there, consider this: Rats have been having a picnic on some of the students’ special chairs.

The good news is, school custodians and teachers cleaned up the room Saturday and removed the old equipment. They did so only after donning respirator masks.

“But it still stinks in there,” a teacher told me Wednesday afternoon.

3 photos of disgusting conditions in a Fresno Unified special ed room that doubles as a teachers office and equipment storage space

Conditions in a special-ed room at Figarden Elementary School before Saturday. (GV Wire Composite/Alex DeSha)

There’s also good news from the other side of town. The district has cleaned up similar unsanitary conditions at a special-ed room at Sunnyside High School after being alerted by teachers at a board meeting.

Superintendent’s Response

Not knowing that the room at Figarden had been recently sanitized, I showed the “before” pictures, which were taken Nov. 4, to Superintendent Bob Nelson on Wednesday morning. I wanted his reaction.

I expected outrage, a vow to get to the bottom of the disgusting mess, and a promise to hold those in charge accountable.

On one occasion, the teacher said, a special-ed manager heard her concerns and responded, “Oh, yeah, that’s a nasty room.”

Instead, he responded in measured tones and with the frustration of a leader whose job is far less about education, but more about putting out multiple fires that seemingly ignite daily in California’s third-largest school district.

“I don’t know how any adult in our system can walk into that room and think that’s OK,” Nelson said. “At some point, this became normalized. That’s disappointing, and it’s unacceptable.”

3 photos of the conditions after the clean-up of the special-ed roome

The combination teachers’ office and storage room after the clean-up. (GV Wire Composite/Alexis DeShaw)

Besides the Mess, Privacy Is a Concern

A special-ed teacher who has worked in the room said that complaints repeatedly were made to the principal and to special-ed managers about the rat problem.

On one occasion, the teacher said, a special-ed manager heard the concerns and responded, “Oh, yeah, that’s a nasty room.”

In addition, special-ed managers have failed to provide an environment where teachers can talk with physicians confidentially over the phone about students’ medical histories and needs.

“This is not only our office space but is also supposed to be our department meeting space, and storage for the entire district’s (orthopedic impairment) equipment,” said the teacher. “There are (not enough) phone lines for each teacher to work privately and we deal in medical information all the time. I worked with a manager last year to get an order in, and special-ed denied it. The total cost for the three lines was about $500.”

(You can see the one portable phone with one shared voice-mail system in the “after” photo above. For the record, Fresno Unified’s 2019-20 budget is more than $1 billion.)

The “before” picture of the equipment in the room raises questions. Does Fresno Unified even have an inventory system? And how long does the district store outdated stuff?

Apparently, the rule of thumb is, keep it until we’re out of room — or the rats take over.

Who Owns This Mess?

I asked the district for clarity on who is responsible for the room: special-ed management or the school principal, Steve Zoller.

“(T)here are a number of departments responsible for that environment which is why several gathered last week to address concerns and develop an action plan for taking inventory, moving equipment to an alternative area and opening up space in order to properly clean. The responsibility doesn’t solely fall on the site.” — Amy Idsvoog, FUSD executive officer for communications

“Trying to create office space in the middle of a district storage area is far from ideal and clearly created challenges for itinerant staff trying to utilize the space,” said Amy Idsvoog, the district’s executive officer for communications.

“However, there are a number of departments responsible for that environment which is why several gathered last week to address concerns and develop an action plan for taking inventory, moving equipment to an alternative area, and opening up space in order to properly clean. The responsibility doesn’t solely fall on the site.”

Translation: A bunch of people own this mess.

But trustee Terry Slatic, who represents the Bullard High region, blames the principal.

“That room is a repulsive, unsafe environment that the school site principal has known about for a long time,” Slatic said. “This is almost certainly a violation of the Williams Act, which requires a safe school environment. I look forward to Superintendent Nelson holding the school principal accountable.”

Consequences Must Accompany This ‘Teachable Moment’

Certainly, this situation presents Nelson with a “teachable moment.”

Lesson One: This kind of indifference and incompetence ends today.

Lesson Two: There are new consequences for leaders who fail.

Lesson Three: Punishment no longer is a lateral transfer or, as often happens in Fresno Unified, a promotion.

Nelson, by nature, is an upbeat and forgiving leader. One who is willing to forgive managers who believe they are protected until hell freezes over — or they retire.

It’s past time for Nelson to show his teeth.

If he doesn’t, nothing changes. Meaning: students won’t get the first-rate education they deserve.

 

9 Responses

  1. Jack Jarvis

    Well, Bill, the Board Members got rid of Hanson, and then went merrily on their way. Why not ask them what they are going to do about this? They got rid of Hanson and kept all the same people in place.

    Reply
  2. Jo

    Horrendous! Thank you for diligently exposing the atrocities that plaque our local special education system.

    Reply
  3. MT

    Thank you for shedding light on this ongoing issue Bill. It’s unconscionsable that individuals who need specialized support for their education are subjected to this kind of toxic and dangerous environment. Equally disturbing for hard working teachers and staff who are not supported in having a safe place to work, teach and provide therapy services. Are schools not subjected to OSHA regulations? How do we tolerate this as a community? Who would want to attend this school or work here? Mr. Nelson’s response is beyond frustrating. With his apathetic response it’s no wonder his management team doesn’t see the urgency of the problem with this classroom and likely many others. Appalling and not acceptable.

    Reply
  4. Alec station

    Is this why Fresno Unified needs a 500 million school bond on the March 2020 ballot so bad ?

    When is the district going to start making these principles & Supervisor accountable instead of giving them promotions who evaluates them ?

    When is bob going to grow a pair ?

    Reply
  5. ESTEBAN PACHECO

    FUSD is so corrupt!

    My daughter was sexually harassed by another classmate at Thomas elementary school on October 14, 2019. FUSD hasn’t done anything about it. The classmate is back in school.

    People don’t even understand how my daughter and family feel.

    I wouldn’t be surprised there’s other dirty, filthy rooms in other schools.

    And the SRO’S ( SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICER’S) Need to start doing their job or get rid of them. They made my wife and I so difficult to get an incident report.

    I can use some support and assistance from anyone that’s willing to help us out.

    Thank you,

    Esteban Pacheco

    Reply
  6. BMV

    Totally UNACCEPTABLE, how could this of been allowed to go on? It’s time to put some value in the special education system. Seeing this says a lot about the standards, or lack of, FUSD has for our children with special needs. It’s appalling for any school to be in that type of condition, let alone one with an over 1 Billion dollar budget for the 2019-2020 school year. Definitely need to be held accountable, no question about it. Thank you for exposing this matter.

    Reply
  7. Lydia

    While i understand they are in a speciality field, my mother in law is as well, and she has to keep her files and equipment on her at all times. Her department doesn’t have a “storage” location. Every specialized field is underpaid, overworked, and understaffed. Something has to change in the system. As a parent with 2 children who are medically fragile, i would be livid with the conditions in that school. FUSD offices were moved recently because of mold over the last year…so they need to reevaluate where those 1Billion dollars are going, and better protect those children. Completely unacceptable.

    Reply
  8. Joe Barron

    Ok, bill, you are painting with a wide brush, and well, it is clearly demonstrative of your ignorance of the scope of the problem. The $1Bn tag is a misnomer, and you know that, there are unrestricted general funds, and “categorical” funds[like “Facilities”], which can include building maintenance, upgrades, OSHA compliance, etc, so that was a cheap shot trying to take Bob Nelson out at the knees. Secondly, FG has been plagued with problems regarding staffing, facilities & support from Regional Instructional Manager(RIM) support for the better part of 2 decades, and has received little to no support when it comes to the deployment of needed operational capital to improve program efficacy, especially in areas like Autism, and M\S SDC. Now let’s look at the issue of “mold contaminants” & rats on\in these structures, why do you think that is? I noticed bill, you didn’t even address another 800 lb gorilla in the room, the notion of that “TEMPORARY” portable buildings are being utilized well beyond their shelf-life. What would be needed to establish a solution to that issue, a Bond, but the people who write your paycheck aren’t too eager to leap headlong to pay a .75-1.5% increase in their property taxes to do that are they. That would also take care of the issue of a private office space for phone calls or confidential discussions, a redesigned building. Now, the phone problem, the RIM should have provided the Site Principal with the $$ to upgrade those communication systems. Why? At the end of the previous year, the RIM was aware of what students would be attending, what services were in the offer of FAPE, and what consideration and logistical support the Site would need, and request from SPED for those things and SPED would fund this through an increase in the “LOCAL CONTRIBUTION.” It would come from the “Unrestricted General Fund” as a necessary expense to fully comply with the Site’s Offer of FAPE to the students receiving services. As for storage space, the District can Lease a Container from PODS, or other vendor, since the number of OHI students varies from year to year, so that would not only be prudent, but most likely more efficient.
    Now as to trustee slatic…a small man with plenty of blame to assign, and no solutions. First, this was hack journalism, and truly unworthy of the label of “news.” Second, these problems are fixable, and the public shame while is a nice exercise in political theater, doesn’t solve the problem. I’ve spent a lot longer working in education than you Bill, and a lot longer in SPED advocacy than mr. slatic. If being a Marine means you whine and assign blame, and do not suggest courses of action, then slatic is you guy. But if you want someone who is prepared to commit to solutions, you need a Stakeholder, which he clearly isn’t. So I close with this, “That room is a repulsive, unsafe environment that the school site principal has known about for a long time,” Slatic said. “This is almost certainly a violation of the Williams Act, which requires a safe school environment. I look forward to Superintendent Nelson holding the school principal accountable.”, for that to happen, maybe he should stay the hell off of our school campuses, since he clearly is the embodiment of the title character from C.S. Forester’s book, “The General.”

    Reply
  9. Wayne E Steffen

    Bill: We know you love the Make Noise, Take Names, Crack Skulls, Get Things Done brand of leaders–think Brooke Ashjian and Terry Slatic, at lease early on–but those Lone Rangers don’t get things done in real-life worlds of boards and commitees. It takes a leader with strong principles and an often quiet voice who can and will work with people over the long term. You once called Ashjian a friend of students but “his own worst enemy.” People who are their own worst enemies are rarely effective.

    Reply

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