Hardly anyone–except perhaps a Chicago Teachers Union lifer–would dispute that providing alternatives to the Chicago public schools is of major importance, particularly for non-Catholics. But the new state fire-alarm code for private day-care centers and preschools is so strict that it could well cause the closing of some of the schools and centers that provide the best alternatives to public-school education in the city.

The new code was imposed by the state fire marshal in 1988. The city fought it for a while, but finally acquiesced. The deadline for meeting the new requirements was extended once, to July 1, and city officials say a second extension is highly unlikely. Many preschools and day-care centers–primarily those with children between the ages of two and six with 20 or more children–are now struggling to make the necessary changes or are trying to decide whether to close. Yet all kinds of facilities are exempt from the new rules: public and other government-funded schools, church-run institutions, and day-care homes.

The list of new requirements is long and complex; it includes architectural floor plans, which can cost thousands of dollars, and annunciator panels, which show fire fighters exactly where in a building a fire is located. Day-care centers with more than 100 children have also had to spring for a direct electrical tie-in to the local fire department, which typically costs from $5,000 to $10,000, though the city has just granted a variance to permit them to be wired via telephone lines to security companies, which is cheaper.

A number of day-care and preschool operators declined to be interviewed for this article, citing their fear of being harassed (or further harassed) by inspectors from the city’s Fire Prevention Bureau. Others agreed to speak only if they could be anonymous. All of them said the fire-alarm code is unnecessary–and could drive them out of business.

Many of these little independent schools are in church buildings. It’s a logical marriage: the churches are nonprofit and have relatively low overheads that allow them to charge less rent. And they have rooms that are empty most of the week. “The problem is,” says a woman who runs a school that she says has been harassed by bureau inspectors, “we depend solely on the tuition that is collected. We try to keep our tuition as low as possible–I do not want this to become an elitist school that only the rich can afford. And this is going to drain us.

“We’ve got a good relation with the church whose building we rent, but it’s become an issue: Who’s responsible to bring the building up to code? The church is not in a financial position to put up this kind of money. Our walls are cinder block. Everything is fireproof. We’ve got smoke alarms. But that’s not enough for the Fire Prevention Bureau–they’re in and out of here all the time. If you try to argue, all they say is, ‘Oh, we’ve got to protect all these children!’ But it’s going to cost between $7,000 and $10,000, and we just don’t have that kind of money. I don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”

Strangely enough, some schools that might seem to be exempt from the new regulations have been told they too have to upgrade. Council Oak Montessori School, at 11030 S. Longwood Drive in the Beverly neighborhood, started up last fall with first-grade through sixth-grade classes and hopes of adding seventh- and eighth-grade classes. The school, headed up by Diana Butler, uses a small suite of rooms in the large Morgan Park United Methodist Church, and charges the parents of its 16 students $2,350 a year. Reasonable tuition, particularly compared to larger, more prestigious institutions such as the neighboring Morgan Park Academy, whose rates climb from $5,050 for first-graders to $6,200 for sixth-graders, and continue rising for every grade through high school. But the school may not open again in the fall.

Each of the school’s two exits has a pull fire alarm. But, says Marsha Enright, a parent who is chairman of the school’s board of directors, “The Fire Department came through in December and said we didn’t go through the right approval program, which meant it was as if [the fire-alarm system] didn’t exist. They said we didn’t meet the new, strict state code. We’re being told to alarm the whole building, a three-story building that occupies the short side of a city block, and we’re told it’s going to cost us $25,000. It will put us out of business.”

Council Oak, she points out, meets a real need: it is the only Montessori school on the southwest side of Chicago. Parents at a nearby 130-student Montessori preschool who want to keep their children in a program with this educational philosophy will have nowhere to go if Council Oak is closed down.

Also facing a death sentence is the nearby Pleasant Street School, which has preschool, kindergarten, and elementary through eighth-grade classes. It too rents space from a church. “We’re fully licensed by the city and state, and we’ve never had any violations or problems,” says Louann Allen, the school’s executive director. “We had a surprise [Fire Prevention Bureau] inspection October 12–we’ve had five inspectors in here all told. They all tell us something different. ‘You need sprinklers. You need an alarm system. You need two $100,000 fire walls.’ But they never put anything in writing. I always feel like I’m coming out of a twilight zone after one of their visits.”

Around the turn of the year, Allen says, an inspector called and informed her that the school had a May 2 court date concerning the alleged violations. “We waited and waited, and we never heard anything. We never got a summons. Our lawyer went to court and went through everything, but he couldn’t find a lawsuit against us. We still haven’t heard anything. Now we’re on hold with the building and the next school year. We don’t know what to do.”

The man who told Allen that she needed the pricey fire walls was a Fire Prevention Bureau engineer, Wayne Mitchell. His name comes up frequently in discussions with school administrators, some of whom accuse him of picking and choosing which schools are required to come up to the new code. Administrators at some preschools in the same area say they haven’t been bothered.

Asked if he’s picking on Pleasant Street, Mitchell says, “They shouldn’t be in that building in the first place. They aren’t separated enough from the other occupancies.” Asked if he’s going after the private, independent schools, he says, “The code doesn’t apply to legitimate elementary schools.” And what is a legitimate elementary school? “Public schools, parochial schools–K through eight. Montessori overlaps with the preschool regulations.” But Council Oak doesn’t have any children under six. Mitchell’s only response to that observation is a grunt.

One of the constant complaints of the preschool and day-care operators who have looked into bringing their buildings up to code is that only a handful of contractors in the city are doing the work, which makes it both difficult to schedule and more expensive. While Mitchell says, correctly, that “any licensed electrical contractor can do the work,” the city’s complex requirements ensure that only a handful of them will care to undertake it. And that helps ensure that labor and installation costs are far higher in the city than in the suburbs. “There are only a handful of companies that can handle this work,” says a security-industry source. “Everything has to be in conduit in the city, instead of only wires that are exposed or below ten feet. Conduit costs more in terms of labor as well as material. The city requires a Ryan box [a device that blows fuses], which is redundant since most [fire-alarm] control boxes have them anyway. In the suburbs you can use Class B low-voltage UL-listed wiring for fire alarms. In the city it has to be Class A, which is more expensive.”

The city, he says, also requires that union labor be used, “and there’s only so much of that to go around. You have to have people on your staff that are very well trained as far as what the city’s requirements are–and that expertise is costly. In the suburbs you can send one of any of a number of people to make a quote, and they can usually do it in about half a day. In the city it takes four or five days to do the engineering, approve the plans, make the drawings. So you’re not only adding to the cost of installing the system, you’re adding to the cost of the estimate. And if you don’t do any part of it right, they’ll close the building down and levy a fine–$100 a day. A good contractor takes that responsibility.

“All this means that there are only a handful of companies that really want to get into that, because the [profit] margins just aren’t there. For a small company, it’s not worth it.”

This man estimates that it costs about twice as much to install a system in Chicago as in the suburbs. Marsha Engquist–the feisty owner of three schools, two of which are affected by the code, and an officer of the Preschool Owners’ Association of Illinois–thinks it costs three to four times more. She’s been in business for 20 years and was the proprietor of the first after-school day-care program in Illinois. She characterizes herself as “mad as hell,” and one is quickly inclined to believe her. One of her preschools has 127 children in a single-story storefront; it now has to have a system that will call the Fire Department. Her other preschool has 54 children in a two-story building and has to have an annunciator panel. “It costs approximately $2,700 just for the panel, because it’s made specifically for the city of Chicago–it’s not used anyplace else in the world.” And, she points out, only a few companies manufacture it. (Similarly, the city until recently authorized the use of electrical equipment of only a handful of manufacturers for upgrading day-care centers. Under pressure from preschool owners, it backed down and now permits any UL-licensed equipment in single-story buildings, which can cut equipment costs by half.)

“In a one-floor day-care center, with no handicapped kids, we’re required to have the same fire-alarm system as County Jail,” says Engquist. “It’s ridiculous. There’s a school in Hyde Park that had a $47,000 system put in six years ago. Now they’re being told to add $20,000 more [in equipment]. There’s a school on the first floor of a high rise–and they’ve told [the owner] that the whole building has to be zoned.” (The owner of the school confirms this–and says the cost could be as high as $100,000–but declined to speak for the record.)

Engquist contends that there has never been a problem with fires in day-care centers. In Chicago, she points out, “you can’t even put a day-care center in a frame building. There has never been a fire where a child was even threatened. The only problems have been in unlicensed homes.”

Not-for-profit centers, she says, are being given grant money to make the changes, and unlicensed centers and private day-care homes won’t have to make them at all. “There’s no money for private day-care centers. It’s ludicrous that these hundreds of thousands of dollars should be spent when we’ve achieved the safety of the children.” The Fire Department tie-ins, she notes, won’t help staffers get children out of a building any faster. “They don’t do anything to make the children safer–just the building.”

Tim Cullerton, head of Chicago’s electrical-inspections department, agrees that some of the code’s original requirements were too harsh for small, single-story schools, and he credits his father, 38th Ward Alderman Tom Cullerton, with getting some changes made. He seems sympathetic to the school owners, but he praises Chicago’s new regulations for exceeding all national standards. And, he argues, the cost of a Ryan box is “insignificant in a large system.” Without it, he says, something could go wrong in an annunciator box and the problem could go unnoticed for a long time.

John Pavlou, general counsel for the state fire marshal, acknowledges that there hasn’t been one school fatality due to fire since the Our Lady of the Angels tragedy in 1958, nor have there been any fire-related deaths in day-care centers. But Pavlou, who comes across as friendly and sincere, contends that state agencies have to plan codes to apply statewide. “No doubt Chicago can put the most fire fighters on the street in the shortest time–but how short is short? If you’re trapped in a burning building, a few minutes can be an eternity. I believe we crafted a justifiable standard for Illinois. And it’s less restrictive than some [states].”

Pavlou says that preschools and day-care centers outside of Chicago haven’t been complaining about the new code, and adds that only 487 day-care centers and preschools, or 20 percent of the state’s licensed centers, must comply. “Marsha Engquist has over a hundred kids in that day-care center up there–and those kids need protection.” He adds that day-care operators will get some compensation: “It will lower their fire-insurance premiums.”

The Fire Prevention Bureau’s chief engineer, Edward Prendergast, acknowledges that the cost of the new requirements is “unfortunate from the standpoint of the individual operators.” But, he says, “We’ve got a problem with what you’d call ‘alternative schools,’ especially in the inner city. They’re well-intentioned, and they want to provide special environments for education. But we’ve got a problem with them using buildings that were never intended to be schools. It seems like the heavy hand of government–but we’re trying to look out for the safety of the kids.”

Julia Draper, who owns Children’s Village, a single-story preschool at 90th and Cottage Grove, says she simply can’t afford the cost. “If we have to come up with that price, I will have to close. The lowest quote I have gotten for an alarm system is $8,000–and before they decided we didn’t have to have the [annunciator panel], we were looking at $16,000 to $18,000.”

She thinks the new system is particularly unnecessary in her case because her entire school is housed in one large room. “Everything is open. There are no closed rooms. Even the kitchen is open–it’s just a section of the building. Only the bathroom is closed off. We don’t even have a vestibule–you walk right into the building. There’s no way there could be a fire in here and we wouldn’t know it.” Children’s Village is licensed for 60 children and has 46. There are seven on staff, and smoking is not allowed. “I don’t make any money doing this. It’s not that I don’t want to protect the children, but this is so clearly not needed. And it is so expensive. The city is not looking at the interests of the child. What it’s really doing is putting children in danger. Because if we are forced to close, these children will go to unlicensed places.”

The tale of the advantages enjoyed by the exempt, unlicensed day-care centers is the constant, bitter refrain of licensed operators. “I run a licensed day-care center,” says one irate preschool owner. “That means I have to provide 35 square feet of space per child, a hot meal every day. I can’t hit the children. Each child has to have health records and immunizations. But exempt day-care centers don’t have any restrictions as to area. They can hit. They can require the kids to brown-bag. They can run their centers in a boiler room if they want to. I have a lot of staff requirements. But not for unlicensed! There are constant inspections for licensed centers–but not for exempt centers.”

Certain of the licensed operators’ gripes sound like sour grapes, but one question asked by virtually all of them is inescapable: if this code is so desperately needed, why are some day-care centers and preschools exempt? A bill now before the legislature says they shouldn’t be; HB 1645 would give facilities until January of 1992 to meet the new regulations, but it would cover all child-care facilities. “It requires plans for smoke detectors and all the rest of it,” says a state official. “It would require the very smallest centers to have large, expensive, extensive alarm systems–regardless of any other factors. I don’t think the day-care industry has taken a very careful look at this bill.” If HB 1645 becomes law, several city and state employees agree, most day care will go underground–or simply dry up. The people who most need good, reliable, affordable day care won’t have it.

The question of why some preschools and day-care centers are exempt was bucked by every state and city official interviewed for this article, though several–including MarySue Barrett, an assistant to Mayor Daley–noted that it was the state, not Chicago, that singled out the licensed facilities. As Maria Whelan, director of the city’s Children’s Services Division of the Department of Human Services, put it, “All we can do as a city is to do the best job we can with what we’re responsible for. The issue of what’s to be done for children in nonlicensed facilities has to be dealt with in a different arena.

“I know the small, for-profit programs are under an incredible amount of pressure, and we’ve tried to be responsive to their needs. It’s not a bad code. It will provide incredible fire protection to children. I’m not trying to minimize the problems, but I really think that once we get over this hurdle, we’ll be in a position to ensure that children are safer.”

Marsha Enright disagrees. “This code is simply unnecessary. It’s overkill. Whatever codes have been in effect since the Our Lady of Angels fire have worked. But this is one of those issues that sounds good, that feels good–‘Protect our children!’ And nobody wants to be against ‘the children.’ But by enforcing a code that we don’t need, and driving schools out of business with their financial demands, they’re going to harm the children a lot more than anyone imagines.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.