Back in early 1989, school officials glowed with pride over their $530-million plan to remove cancer-causing asbestos and renovate several run-down schools across the city. But they’re not bragging anymore: 22 months have passed and hardly any construction is under way.

“This delay is beyond comprehension,” says Cappy Ricks, a member of the local school council at Lake View High School, 4015 N. Ashland. “We’ve got money in the bank ready to repair some run-down school buildings, and it’s not being spent. It’s very frustrating.”

Most critics blame the delay on the Public Building Commission, an obscure 11-member public body chaired by Mayor Daley. Its primary function is to borrow money for municipal construction projects and then get out of the way and let the construction begin. In June, however, the commissioners halted the renovations at Lake View and other schools (after already issuing bonds for them) on the grounds that bidders were asking too much to remove the asbestos. The projects have been on hold ever since, and no one is certain when they’ll be started.

“We’ve got pipes, which run over the steam tables in the cafeteria, that have asbestos in them,” says Ricks. “They encapsulated those pipes by wrapping duct tape over the asbestos. How’s that to make you feel safe and sound? None of their explanations for the delay make much sense. You’d want there to be a villain to blame. But it could be a case of ignorance and indifference on the part of the PBC.”

The school board’s original renovation plans (announced in February 1989) called for new roof and windows at Lake View at a cost of $6.6 million. But removing the asbestos was the first hurdle to clear. (Asbestos was commonly used as insulation until the mid-1970s, when researchers discovered it caused cancer in laboratory animals and the substance was banned.)

“The problem with asbestos is not so much that it is in the buildings, because as long as it’s resting there it’s not hurting anyone,” says Ed Tanzman, a member of the local school council at Nettelhorst Elementary School, 3252 N. Broadway, which is also insulated with asbestos. “The problem comes when you expose the asbestos, as you do during a construction project. Then you release thousands of fibers. So before any major renovation you have to remove the asbestos.”

Removing asbestos is a lengthy and potentially dangerous task. Whole rooms are cordoned off behind plastic curtains, and repairmen are required to wear protective masks and clothing. All the time and equipment involved make it expensive to do.

“Asbestos removal is the messiest part of any construction project,” says Tanzman. “At the end of the day of work, a monitoring expert has to sample the air to determine if the level of asbestos is within allowable limits. It’s definitely the kind of project you have to limit to those times when students aren’t in school.”

The school board, Tanzman says, has had plans to install new windows and make other improvements at Nettelhorst, built at the turn of the century, for about two decades. At one point in 1979, the board actually drew up renovation plans. But these plans were abandoned a few months later when the school system went bankrupt.

So Nettelhorst officials were relieved, and very surprised, when a work crew showed up in September 1989 to fix the roof. “There was no warning; the crew just showed up,” says Tanzman. “Peggy Lubin, our principal, didn’t even know they were coming. They didn’t even give the principal the basic courtesy of letting her know this was going to happen. We were grateful for their attention, but it’s our school and we expect to be more involved.”

By then Tanzman was part of a newly elected council whose chairman was Sue Schmidt. Schmidt, Tanzman, and other council members made countless phone calls and wrote dozens of letters to school board officials asking to have a say in the renovation.

At most, they got two or three replies; former board president James Compton never returned even a single phone call. The Public Building Commission was just as uncooperative; Tanzman says PBC executive director William Harris told him, “We don’t have the facilities to handle the problems of local school councils.” (Harris could not be reached for comment.)

The situation was complicated by a confusing division of labor. Specifications for construction bids are written by Board of Education staffers. But final approval for all building plans belongs to the PBC, whose members include representatives of the Park District, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, and the Board of Education; the mayor is its ex officio chairman. There was, apparently, almost no contact between school and PBC officials while the specifications were being drafted, even though Compton was on the PBC at that time.

“The PBC exists for one reason only–to issue bonds for public projects,” says Ricks. “They’re the invisible agency, but they have a lot of power.”

The PBC exercised some of that power at their June meeting, when, to the dismay of the local councils, they abruptly dismissed all the bids. The only reason cited was that the bids were too high–astronomically so, Daley said. Other PBC members contended that money could be saved by cutting back the amount of asbestos removed from each school, though they cited no research to support this idea. To school activists it seemed clear that the commissioners had not adequately studied the matter. They certainly didn’t seem to realize that their decision would lengthen the time students and teachers spent in leaky, drafty, asbestos-lined classrooms, school council members contend.

“People at the board were working on these plans for months,” says Tanzman. “The PBC had a lot of time to register complaints. I don’t know why they waited until the end. You’d think that they’d be working with the board all along, to keep this from happening.”

At the June meeting Daley suggested that the PBC create a subcommittee to rewrite the bid requests. The full commission agreed, and with that the renovation projects were back to square one.

“The asbestos has to be removed before you can do anything else, so all construction was off,” says Ricks. “It screwed up all of our plans. We had moved our summer-school classes to a different school in anticipation of the construction. What a waste that turned out to be.”

As word of the delay spread, local councils at other schools anticipating construction stepped forward to complain. “Our school building is 25 years old, and that’s enough time for a lot of things to go wrong,” says Timothy Nolan, a member of the local school council at Kennedy High School, 6325 W. 56th St. “The roof leaks all over the place, as do three-quarters of the windows. We also have asbestos in the auditorium and on the third floor. It’s not a pretty sight.”

The schools pressed their case at the PBC’s meeting in July. And still the PBC took no action. Since then the subcommittee has met only twice.

“They don’t sense the urgency,” says Tanzman. “The subcommittee only met once between the June and July meeting. If they felt the urgency, they could have worked a little harder to find a resolution. At that time they still could have redrafted the bid requests in time to get the projects under way during the summer.”

Since the summer, the PBC has hired an outside consultant to review the bid requests; but no one can say exactly when that consultant report will be completed.

“They think they can save money by cutting back on the project, with the idea that not all the asbestos in every school building has to be removed,” says Tanzman. “But any way you look at it, I can sure as heck say that money will be lost. We’ve lost time with the delay, and prices will go up because of inflation and rising oil prices. Meanwhile we’re spending more money than we have to on heating these schools. These are huge old barns, very inefficient buildings. That’s one reason they need to be renovated in the first place.”

Harris has told Tanzman and reporters that the work will be done soon. “This work will certainly be done by next summer,” he told Dan Baron, reporter for The Neighborhood Works, a monthly newsletter on economic development and other neighborhood issues. “Some of it will be done before that.”

With any luck, new bid requests may be ready by January, though few school council members are counting on it.

“The delays hurt everyone who is trying to change the image of the public schools,” says Tanzman. “We’re trying to send out a positive message, but every time some parents walk past Nettelhorst and see an old building in need of repair they’re going to be less likely to send their children there. If they have the slightest feeling that sending their children to Nettelhorst is a risk, they won’t do it. I have no sense that the PBC appreciates this. They see this issue as nothing but bricks and mortar. They don’t see the kids. And everyone suffers as a result.”

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