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Close to Home: The state of public schools: An uncomfortable truth

The latest edition of Harper's features a piece on the appalling state of Detroit's public schools, including several references to the deplorable physical conditions of classrooms there. This excerpt jumped off the page: “Much-needed repairs to walls and leaky roofs have gone unaddressed; in the worst cases, mice could be seen scampering across unheated classrooms.”

It's probably not surprising that schools in that forlorn city are faced with challenges of considerable magnitude. But such conditions are not unique to Detroit.

Incredibly, they're all too commonplace right here in Santa Rosa's public schools - and in schools across America.

Some years ago “The Simpsons” television show parodied this sad state of affairs in a vignette involving Principal Skinner and students on a school bus with no brakes. There was no money for that repair; instead, its floor board had been removed, and the students used their feet to bring the bus to a skidding stop.

Absurd?

Of course it is. But satire is effective when it confronts uncomfortable truths.

In this case, the truth is that most of us have become inured to the reality that American schools are antiquated, dilapidated and all too often filthy places. How has it come to this?

Here are a few examples of disrepair and neglect from the two schools where I teach:

At Santa Rosa High School, there is no cafeteria for a school with nearly 2,200 students. When it rains, students are forced to huddle under narrow, covered walkways or sit on the floor in the hallways of the main building. Some take refuge in sympathetic teachers' classrooms, where even the tidiest students will leave behind crumbs and other remnants of their lunches. Ubiquitous and opportunistic rodents lie in wait because a severe shortage of custodial staff means it might be days - or longer - until even a perfunctory cleaning takes place in that classroom.

The only boys' bathroom in the main building has been “out of order” since the second week of school. What should be a simple trip to the bathroom now becomes a significant loss of instructional time.

The performing arts building has no air conditioning, and its heating system works most reliably when it is least needed. Students in physically demanding classes swelter for much of the year. Two industrial exhaust fans were placed in that building's attic many years ago as a means to alleviate the heat, but they've never been operable.

In that same building, one of the two urinals in the boys' bathroom has been unusable since early in the school year, and it's a rare day when there's soap or paper towels.

The heat in the music building at Santa Rosa Middle School is disabled, and there are numerous holes in the ceiling tiles. One can see the soon-to-be leaky roof clearly, and it's likely that mold is present. The condition of the ceiling in the nearby faculty bathroom is even more disgustingly precarious.

Circumstances such as these should compel taxpayers to ask tough questions about where the money from previous school bond levies has gone.

Education funding is frustratingly categorical and labyrinthine, which may or may not explain why so many new programs - and the top-heavy administration of those programs - have been bolstered at the expense of longstanding infrastructural deficiencies.

Regardless, we can't continue to ignore these embarrassing conditions. Like it or not, a true fix, as opposed to the cosmetic and slapdash methods we've employed for as long as anyone can remember, will require a great deal of money.

And those funds will not come easily.

We talk a great game about the importance of education, but our students are subjected on a daily basis to overwhelming evidence that makes a mockery of this rhetoric.

Mark Wardlaw is director of instrumental music at Santa Rosa High School. He lives in Santa Rosa.

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