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Taft’s delayed opening was because it was unsafe for students and parents. So why were teachers required to work?

Taft Middle School
Taft Middle School

By Stacy Martin
Managing Editor

If Taft Middle School was unfit for students to occupy early this month, why did teachers have to work there during potentially hazardous construction, unbearable heat, plus a day when its attached gymnasium floor was re-coated in toxic lacquer?

The City Sentinel asked those questions of numerous people, but the answers made little sense.

The teachers who were there on Thursday, Aug. 8 were among the most unfortunate; that was the day fresh lacquer was applied to the floor of the gym, which is attached to the main school building. A 911 call went out for one teacher who succumbed.

EMSA’s Lara O’Leary confirmed an adult female was picked up at Taft on Thursday, Aug. 8 but declined to release the 911 tape. Oklahoma City Police Department MSgt. Gary Knight said the call went out to assist a patient there who had a seizure. O’Leary said the patient was released in “good” condition.

School District spokeswoman Tierney Tinnin said Taft’s teachers and staff were sent home for the balance of the day.
A pregnant teacher works at Taft.

No teachers wanted to grant an interview with The City Sentinel. Nor did they complain to the American Federation of Teachers, which represents some teachers in the district.

American Federation of Teachers President Ed Allen visited Taft that week and also sent representatives into the building numerous times. But he wasn’t willing to hold back about the findings.

“It’s just another example of how little regard this district has for its teachers, said Allen. “And it’s not the only example either.”

Here’s how events unfolded from the beginning: Teachers reported for duty as required July 31. Multiple sources confirm the building was still under construction, had little or no air conditioning and plumbing.

Either Thursday or Friday (when the heat index outside climbed to 103.5 degrees) school district officials declared the building unsafe for students and parents to enter the building, delaying school’s start until Aug. 12.

But after allegedly obtaining an “all clear” from the City Fire Marshal’s office, it’s school administrators decided Taft’s roughly 50 teachers would be safe inside for the week of closure while construction was completed.
There’s just one problem. It wasn’t safe, according to State Fire Marshal’s office standards.

An educational building isn’t safe for occupancy until all construction is complete and all life safety systems such as fire alarms and sprinkler systems are working, said Luke Tallant, with the State Fire Marshal’s office.
The outdoor temperatures during the week teachers were in the building before schools actually started were provided by Gary McManus, associate state climatologist for the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.

Oklahoma City Public School District officials told the media Taft’s approximately 1,000 students would have to wait about another week to start.

However, a school employee who answered the Taft telephone (who spoke on condition of anonymity) said Taft has only about 500 students and the school’s only air conditioned area prior to the school’s eventual start was the administrative office.

However, district spokeswoman Tierney Tinnin said, “The safety and well-being of our students and staff is a priority for this district. During the week prior to the start of classes at Taft Middle School additional steps were taken to make the staff as comfortable as possible; water was provided and the staff was able to work in cooler areas in the building. Additionally, a safety meeting with MAPS, the contractor and school officials was held for teachers and staff to address any safety issues.”

Regard for teachers isn’t high on the administration’s list, union leader Allen says. Another incident that occurred near the beginning of the school year also troubled him.

A third grader at an Oklahoma City elementary school struck a teacher. The student’s punishment was to be sent home for the rest of the day, which Allen thought was sorely inadequate.

Back at Taft, during the closure while construction was still underway, there was a sign posted at the front door that students and parents were prohibited from entering.

But the sign didn’t say anything about the media. There’s no doubt the school was hot; a City Sentinel editor was able to enter the unguarded entry. The air was hot and stagnant.

Whether there were a few spotty cool areas of the building probably wouldn’t have helped much.

Allen said teachers have to work a standard number of days during the school year or make them up.

But to be ready for school’s start, educators had to spend a considerable amount of time in their classrooms just to be properly prepared for the return of students.

There would be cleaning to be done; boxes to unpack; materials to put in their proper place such as pens, pencils, markers, crayons, poster board, paper, testing materials, books, rulers, pens, pencils, tissue boxes; seating assignments would need to be made; lesson plans would to be done; ensuring everything was in working order, photocopying; preparation/organization of their own desks and preparation for a new class of new faces with new names.

Important work, and certainly not work that could be completed elsewhere.

Taft’s antiquated classroom windows are tall, wide and have no coverings. Without air conditioning, outside heat enters freely and is trapped in the classrooms, heating them up, much like in a hot car.

The “continuous learning calendar” which, among other things, moved the start of the school year from early September to early August was the invention of School District Superintendent Karl Springer.

Union leader Allen said there are sometimes as many as 50 to 60 air conditioning outages reported at the beginning of the every school year.

The last day of work for Springer is Friday, Aug. 29.

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