At a Nov. 18 meeting of the Mobile County Board of School Commissioners, just after a group from Semmes Middle School demonstrated a student-made robot that took home awards at the Best Robotics Competition, several parents of children enrolled at Mae Eanes Middle School changed the tone, asking about a rodent and roach infestation.The parents also brought up concerns of disparity between schools in the district, with some suggesting black families were disproportionately affected. The issue began several months ago, when a planned renovation project at Eanes was delayed once the school system realized a $100 million construction bond from 2012 wouldn’t stretch as far as originally intended.
But a scathing report from the Mobile County Health Department earlier this month brought the school’s condition to the forefront of parents’ attention. A health department inspection in late October found “clutter and unsanitary conditions” in certain areas, while a follow-up Nov. 4 listed mold and mildew, water damage, “soiled patient beddings” in the nurse’s area, a dishwasher that wasn’t being utilized and “visible signs of insects and rodents” in the school’s cafeteria, among other citations.
In all, the report showed four pages of problems at the school. One parent called it “unacceptable.”
“How can a board sit here and fund computers for other programs at one school and then neglect the very basic needs of another school?” asked Lorenzo Green, who volunteers at Mae Eanes. “For students to be in an environment that’s not conducive for learning is wrong. These children have been neglected for too long, and they’re wonderful children.”
Some news reports suggested the school was close to being condemned, but the health department refuted those claims. Still, pictures of toilets surrounded by black mildew and other images of disrepair from the school were circulated among several parents. Green suggested if similar conditions were present at private facilities it would result in their immediate closure.
Mobile County Superintendent of Schools Martha Peek said the system is in agreement with the parents that the conditions at the school were unacceptable. Since the report was made public, she says the facilities department has doubled its efforts to address the problems — performing a “thorough cleaning” and “monitoring it very closely.”
When asked how the school deteriorated, Peek suggested it was partially a “breakdown in communication.”
“There is a protocol. We have a work-order system in place, and we also have people who monitor the school in the cleanliness area and everything,” Peek said. “There has been some kind of miscommunication for some of these issues to have existed and not been brought to our attention before they were to that extent.”
Peek suggested a change in personnel could have contributed to the problem, but said the system is working to improve communication to avoid any similar issue in the future.District I4 Commissioner Robert Battles called a community meeting about the condition of Mae Eanes earlier in November. Reports of rodents only added to existing concerns that Mae Eans had taken a back seat to other schools in the district — an opinion Battles expressed in a memo dissenting from the board’s recent positive annual evaluation of Peek’s performance as superintendent.
In the report, Battles argued Peek had failed to submit a plan to the board for rescheduling restoration projects at Mae Eanes and Leflore High School that were delayed in March.
In early 2013, the board laid out restoration plans for 17 schools that included a $7.6 million overhaul at Mae Eanes. However, Peek said several setbacks increased the costs of other projects funded by the same bond, putting the system $5.3 million over budget.
As a result, plans for Mae Eanes, along with a $3.4 million performing arts center at Leflore High School and a $2 million purpose building at Indian Springs Elementary School, were put on hold.
“No one anticipated in August of 2012 that a tornado would hit Murphy High School in December of that year,” Peek said. “These were costs the board had to address in order to meet the immediate needs of the system.”
Repairs and renovations at Murphy ultimately cost the board $8 million — money needed to match emergency funds received from the state. Of that, $4 million came from the construction bond.
Though they didn’t dispute Murphy’s emergency repairs, parents did question why $3.5 million in exterior renovations at Barton Academy, which currently has no students, took precedence over existing schools in predominantly black District 4. Leaders from Mobile County’s chapter of the NAACP were in attendance, but none commented on the situation.
Though the system says sanitary issues at the school have been resolved, a larger problem looms as declining enrollment threatens funding and perhaps even the viability of the school. According to Peek, Eanes has only 264 students enrolled today, compared to more than 1,000 in 2006.
Several neighborhoods in the school’s zone, some of which include public housing, are also likely to be impacted as the Mobile Housing Board continues to plan a $750 million redevelopment project on 330 acres currently occupied by R.V. Taylor Plaza, Thomas James Place and the Frank W. Boykin tower.
“People also know that those housing developments are not going to be there any longer. I don’t think there’s anything definite about it yet, but that impacts the school,” Peek said. “We’re working with the Housing Board, we’re learning right along with them because we certainly want to be part of the revitalization of the neighborhood, but it gets to be difficult to predict what’s going to happen.”