COLUMBUS, Ohio — Lead-based paint chips peeling from the ceiling. Loose bricks on an exterior wall of an elementary school. Stairs missing safety tread.
These are just a few of the problems that health and safety inspectors found inside Columbus City Schools within the past school year.
Months before teachers were threatening to strike over wages, classroom sizes and building conditions, 10 Investigates began reviewing environmental, health and safety inspections of the state’s largest school district.
What we found: the city’s health department has routinely flagged Columbus City Schools in recent years for issues that need to be corrected – including some that threaten student safety. The issues vary from water intrusion, leaking or missing ceiling tiles, lead-based paint that needs treated or playground equipment or benches that are in need of repair due to concerns.
Since March of 2022, Columbus Public Health inspectors have found issues in 32 CCS schools.
But 10 Investigates found repairing some of these issues were - in some cases - delayed or were left unrepaired.
That was despite recommendations from the health department that they be fixed as soon as possible.
In a series of emailed responses to 10 Investigates’ questions, a district spokeswoman says the issues are addressed at the school level or are contracted out to vendors when they are “more significant or specialized.” The spokeswoman went on to say that as part of the workflow process repairs are scheduled when students are not there – which includes doing repair work over the summer.
“Our administration has transparently informed the community of the District's needed maintenance and infrastructure needs. The pictures you've shared show why there is a need for continued investment in our school facilities. Funding is critical to addressing many of these needs, and our Board of Education understands the importance of investing in our schools. For this reason, they've voted to place a permanent improvement levy and bond issue on the ballot this November to ask the public for support.”
CCS has said it has spent $125 million in facilities upgrades since 2017 as part of its “Operation Fix It” program and that it has since engaged in community conversations and spent federal stimulus which will add 16 HVAC units to schools that previously did not have them.
But emails between Columbus City Schools and Columbus Public Health – which were obtained by 10 Investigates through an open records request – show that the health department suggested that repairs could be made after hours or on weekends.
Records show delays or unrepaired issues at Devonshire Elementary
A March 28, 2022 inspection at Devonshire Elementary found issues with lead-based paint that needed to be encapsulated and loose bricks on an exterior wall.
The inspection report shows a person with the school told the health department “students will grab the bricks and sometimes throw them.”
Columbus Public Health recommended repairing the wall in March.
But when 10 Investigates stopped by this week, those loose bricks were still there, months after the inspector’s visit.
In that same March report, health inspectors found suspected lead-based paint in several areas of the school that was peeling away.
A teacher noted told the health inspector “paint will flake off the ceiling and fall on students and staff.”
A follow-up survey paid for by the school district found lead-based paint in nine classrooms and other areas of the school.
But 10 Investigates’ review of work orders and emails between CCS and the health department show it took seven weeks for the lead paint to re-painted and fixed - that’s despite the health department’s recommendation that it be completed “as soon as possible.”
In an April 26th email between a Columbus Public Health supervisor and the environmental manager for Columbus City Schools, the health department noted:
“With this being lead based paint and it not being controlled at this time we would want this completed ASAP. This is a hazard to the children in this school and is subject to the weather in the environment. This is something that could be addressed on the weekend or outside of school hours. Again, it should be completed only by those trained to work with lead based paint so they do not create more of a hazard.”
The email chain, obtained by 10 Investigates through an open records request, details how CCS was made aware that lead-based paint might be flaking on March 28th but that repairs were not made until May 12th -- seven weeks after the inspection first flagged concerns about the lead-based paint.
Indianola Informal K-8 has history of lead-based paint mitigation
10 Investigates also found repeated work orders for encapsulating lead paint and water leaks at Indianola Informal K-8 from dating back to 2018 and continuing through this year.
A work order from March of this year reads: “I listed this as a priority 1 because there is a tiny bit that came off the ceiling and there is a layer of lead paint on our ceilings. We've had to mitigate lead paint clean up before. Please come right away to test.” That particular issue was taken care of in a week.
10 Investigates shared our findings with Dr. Nicholas Newman, an environmental pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, who treats children exposed to lead.
“The nature of having a school with like dozens or hundreds of kids in it and you have lead paint hazards, that is certainly not reassuring. And you’d want to try to remedy that as fast as possible,” Dr. Newman told Chief Investigative Reporter Bennett Haeberle.
10 Investigates talks with CCS
Columbus City Schools did provide numerous emailed responses but would not agree to an interview until we told them we planned to show up at this week’s board meeting prepared to ask questions.
A district spokeswoman balked at our request to speak to school board members, but said if we waited until after meeting, we could speak with the Deputy Superintendent of Operations, Dr. David James.
10 Investigates asked if the district could do a better job of addressing these issues to the stakeholders?
James said: “I think any organization could do a better job. I have asked my team to review the process of getting these inspection reports in, and then working with our staff at the buildings because there are multiple parties involved from custodian to different departments in operations to make sure we can turn around those issues as quickly as possible so the buildings are as safe as what everyone wants.”
David James says that the district is committed to investing, but that many of its buildings are 75 years old.
When asked if there is a sense of frustration, James said: “No, that’s just part of the day to day work that and just try to keep up with it as best we can.”
When pressed about whether teachers and students were upset with some of the conditions, he said: “I am sure they are and they let us know and we respond as soon as we can.”